Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, who also took the lead role of a sanctimonious journalist, Deux hommes dans Manhattan is a procedural. Two men, journalist Moreau and photographer Delmas, investigate the disappearance of France’s ambassador to the U.N. Their nocturnal search takes them throughout the electric city and into “darkest Brooklyn”—a reference that always cracks me up. Two Men looks back to a number of films, including two noirs by Jules Dassin, The Naked City (1948) and the London-set Night and the City (1950), and with its complex tone—a mix of journalistic objectivity, spooky mystery skirting luridness, macabre comedy—and tortured lonely lives, it looks ahead to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
It turns out that a heart attack killed the French diplomat in his mistress’s apartment. His daughter shadows the investigative pair while her mother, the one most in the dark, waits for some word from her spouse. For her, it’s another one of those nights.
The dead man had been a true hero of the Resistance. A quarrel ensues as to how to treat the “story”—sensationally, which will mean big bucks, or tactfully, which is to say, deceptively. Melville knows his Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948); Moreau and Moreau’s boss insist on “printing the legend.” Delmas, a cynic and the one struggling hardest to make a living, is slower to come around.
At one level, the two men are warring aspects of a similar job description; at another, they are both differently wrong. One adheres to the past; the other must cope with the present.
Widely regarded as one of his failures, even by Melville, this is actually one of his most brilliant, most moving works—and the black-and-white cinematography, by Nicolas Hayer and Melville himself, is peerless.
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