Saturday, July 22, 2017

Jean-Pierre Melville | Deux hommes dans Manhattan (Two Men in Manhattan)

on the track of a playboy
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Pierre Melville (writer and director) Deux hommes dans Manhattan (Two Men in Manhattan) / 1959

One of only two films he shot partially in New York, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Two Men in Manhattan is a kind of paean to New York nightlife in much the same way as, say, the paintings of Grant Wood are symbols of an imaginary rural Iowa life. In both cases, as beautiful as they are, it’s dangerous to confuse them with the real thing, not only because both artists were, at moments, satirically toying with their audiences, but because the love and nostalgia they imbued upon their subjects often clouded their visions.

 The French Melville admired nearly all things American, particularly its studio noir films of the 1930s and 1940s, its large automobiles (he drove a Cadillac through the narrow streets of Paris), and many other things that might be said to represent the US: he was fond of wearing Stetson hats and, most importantly, had even changed his name to honor the great American 19th century author, Herman Melville.

      Yet, even in this film, whose late-night city landscapes, infused with jazz (composed by Martial Solal and Christian Chevallier), often perfectly captures the allure of Manhattan night life, the story the film tells alternates between small and cluttered interiors—all filmed in France—that seldom resemble anything one might actually encounter in New York, even though one particular scene in an all-night diner was modeled after the one in John Houston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Nobody in the US could ever believe his The Roosevelt Hospital, with its narrow hallways and single-manned entry desks. And even the numerous bar scenes seem to be tiny getaways located in the Frenchman’s imagination.

     Most importantly, this seemingly underground tale about the grubby nightlife of the city, is told through the eyes of two seemingly worldly and even witty French journalists, Moreau (Melville himself), who works for Agence France-Presse and photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset), employed by France-Match (the French offices of which I observed for several days as a 16-year old when my family stayed in a hotel across the street; see My Year 2011). It seems the French UN ambassador has gone missing, and these two night-owls are called upon to discover his whereabouts—hardly a plot set-up that any Hollywood studio executive would ever have approved.

       It seems that the ambassador was a busy ladies’ man, whose women friends Delmas, pulled out of his own bed with a woman in it, knows all about and is willing to tag along with Moreau to get some more dirt on the man. He survives, like a paparazzi, by selling photographs that reveal the worst behavior of humankind. And there’s the rub. The sad-faced Moreau may know too much about the night, but, like most of Melville’s figures, he has a twisted moral code that admits the truth of human frailty without reporting to the world at large or, as Delmas does, exaggerating it. In this sense, Melville’s film has a lot in common with the American comedy of 1953, Roman Holiday.

       In his version, Melville is also almost comic in his choice of the ambassador’s women friends, which include a series of figures who might have come right out of the pages of a 1950s crime paperback: an actress, Judith Nelson (Ginger Hall), a jazz singer, Virginia Graham (Glenda Leight), a stripper, Bessie Reed (Michèle Bailly), and a high-class prostitute, Gloria (Monique Hennessy)—the last particularly outrageous, since, supposedly, her employers are a Chinese matriarch and her daughter.

      None of these women seem to know anything about their dear UN ambassador—that is, until the two stand-in detectives hear that, after interviewing her, the actress has tried to kill herself.

     That’s about it with regards to plot. Judith has found the man in her own apartment, dead, apparently, of a heart attack, where he remains when the journalists break into her lodgings. Moreau calls the police while Delmas attempts to transport the body into an incriminating position in the actress’s bed. Moreau restores the body to the couch, but Delmas refuses to relinquish his photos: after all, a man has got to live.

      Throughout the film we’ve observed a car following the would-be flat-foots; the driver, it turns out, is the ambassador’s daughter, Anne (Christiane Eudes), who is attempting to keep the sex-life of her national-hero father (an important Resistance member) out of the papers and away from the ears of his loyal wife. Now, together, Moreau and Anne attempt to tract down all the major publications (Time, Look, Life, etc) to whom Delmas may have tried to sell his photos.

      They finally find him in a dive, asleep and drunk. In the most dramatic action he has engaged through the entire evening, Moreau slugs the photographer for his implicit betrayal. Coming to, Delmas leaves the bar and drops the film canisters down a city drain into the sewers.

      Is it any wonder that Melville’s 1959 film was a cinema failure, and that from here on he vowed to work only with well-known European actors?

     Oddly enough, however, I loved this film, tracking in the footsteps of American gangster films without ever really caring about the genre itself. Melville believed in the imaginary values he saw in such characters, and, more than anything, he believed in the tropes of the genre more than he did in the characters themselves. And it is that very fact, so brilliantly revealed in this film, that helped to make his many masterworks— Le Samouraï,  Le Cercle Rouge, and  Army of Shadows among them—so wonderfully different from the American counterparts in the gangster and western genres. One can sum it up quickly: Melville’s misfits always had style and often survived because of it, Bob le flambeur being the perfect example. Ruffians, down-and-outers, they were not. Melville’s crooks, maybe a bit like the Trump family, sought class—although unlike the Trumps, they truly had it all along.

Los Angeles, July 22, 2017

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