Two Men in Manhattan (US - BD RA)
Gabe catches up on his Melville with this rare, jazzy, noir mini-masterpiece...
A French UN delegate has disappeared into thin air, sending reporter Moreau (Jean-Pierre Melville) and hard-drinking photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset) on an ethically-fraught mission to find him. Their only lead is a picture of three women. (From Cohen’s official box synopsis)
Anyone that considers themselves a fan of Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino, absolutely needs to seek out any of Jean-Pierre Melville’s work as soon as possible. Though I consider myself a novice in the ways of France’s La Nouvelle Vague movement, Melville (whose career is sometimes labeled as running parallel to the movement) has always been a favourite, due in large part to his commitment to genre. Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, et cetera were not ‘genre’ filmmakers; they were style-conscious realists that mostly made movies about people. Melville films, which were often centered on either the German occupation of France during WWII (he was an acting member of The Resistance) or lone wolf cops/robbers with impeccable fashion senses, are the ideal gateway drug to the more tonally challenging work of his contemporaries. Cohen Media’s box art sports a quote from Tarantino that likens Melville’s work in crime cinema to Sergio Leone’s work in westerns. The comparisons are strong – both filmmakers helped redefine the imagery of their largely European genres and both are what you’d call ‘filmmaker’s filmmakers.’ Like Leone and fellow spaghetti western artisan Sergio Corbucci, not to mention Dario Argento and Walter Hill (both artists that must’ve acknowledged a debt to Melville at some point), Melville steadily fell into a rut of making the same movie over and over again as his career wound down. The difference being that Melville’s films never significantly declined in quality.
Two Men in Manhattan was Melville’s second shot at bringing his cool, collected aesthetic to the film noir genre, following 1956’s Bob the Gambler (remade as The Good Thief by Neil Jordon in 2002). Both films also follow the La Nouvelle Vague standard more closely than the movies that followed Le Doulos. Two Men in Manhattan and Bob the Gambler both open like a documentaries, including establishing shots of the city and narration, a technique also used by Elia Kazan for his first standard noir/ode to Italian Neo-Realism, Panic in the Streets. In the case of Two Men in Manhattan, we are given a primer on the current political climate, complete with stock footage from the UN Assembly. This has almost no bearing on the film’s loose-fitting plot, but it helps to establish the postcard-like charm Melville wishes to imbue the story with. He follows the conventions of standard Hollywood noir more closely here than any of his other crime films, paying homage to the likes of John Huston, Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger, and, of course, the European filmmakers that inspired them. Two Men in Manhattan is also an uncharacteristically jazzy film – sometimes quite literally so. Besides a nearly constant stream of actual jazz music, the editing is poppy and the camera work is simplified to mostly lopped off shots and tripod-assisted quick pans. Even dialogue sequences have a punch that feels unexpected, assuming that, like me, your expectations of Melville are based on his later work. It’s probably worth noting that the film’s slowest and gentlest moments are usual moments that feature live music that is being captured on camera.
Melville’s screenplay is standard noir fare, though he tells it via two (sort of) law-abiding reporters instead of the standard cops and/or robbers. It seems to me that plotting became less important to him in his later years, when he was more focused on how the story was told, rather than the story’s actual content (I suppose this is a good place to compare him to Leone). The characters in Melville’s first two noirs are ordinarily flawed or, in the case of Bob the Gambler, downright awkward individuals. This actually makes them more charming than the director’s more famous and predominately amoral protagonists. We worry about Moreau’s safety, because, despite his blasé facial expressions, we know he’s not equipped for the situation, unlike the protagonists of Melville’s later crime films, whose safety is threatened by equally cunning antagonists. Two Men in Manhattan is also unique among Melville’s films as well because it marks the only time he played a major role in one of his own movies. He actually has a wonderful screen presence and I can imagine him using himself as an example while directing Alain Delon in Le Samourai or Un Flic, despite his lack of Delon’s riveting imperturbability.
Cohen Media Group didn’t cover their press releases with specifics about the restoration of Two Men in Manhattan as they have with some of their earlier releases, but there’s little question that they’ve made their usual effort with the material. This 1.33:1 (it looks to me as if it’s a little cropped on the edges during the credits, but I cannot find any specified aspect ratio), 1080p, black & white transfer is a mostly Criterion-worthy affair, including some surprisingly crisp and edge halo-free textures. On average, elements are nicely separated and the contrast isn’t set so high that it squeezes out the finer gradations. The biggest problems here pertain almost exclusively to the images shot on-location, where Melville and cinematographer Nicolas Hayer couldn’t control their lighting as well as they may have wanted to. The overall darkness of these scenes is occasionally oppressive to the point that it’s impossible to discern anything at all. I’m not sure of the state of the original material here (the press release lists Two Men in Manhattan as a ‘lost’ film), but assume that these outdoor scenes were always a bit rough. There are also some expected problems with jittering effects, frame wiggle, and heavy grain that make their way into the otherwise pristine indoor scenes, but these are the exceptions, rather than the rule. A handful of shots appear particularly flat and fuzzy. I assume these represent pieces of film that were decidedly more damaged and that more digital tinkering than usual was required. Otherwise, I didn’t notice any heavy-handed DNR tampering.
Two Men in Manhattan is presented in lossless PCM 2.0 and its original mono. This soundtrack is expectedly simple, though the cinéma vérité style does give the single channel mix quite a bit of body and a busy sound floor. The basic mix, however, is mostly made up of clean dialogue (French and English are used throughout the film) and basic, set-captured sound effects. Martial Solal and Christian Chevallier’s music is treated almost like a source score, as if a full jazz orchestra is standing behind the camera for every sweeping shot of the city. Melville makes sure the score’s efforts don’t go unnoticed, either. When characters step off the streets into buildings, the music almost always stops, unless, of course, they wander into a bar where actual source music is playing, in which case the music will become appropriately muted according to where they are in the building. The music also implicitly punctuates certain actions in the film, almost like a fist-fight on the ‘60s Batman TV series. A good example of this comes early in the film, when a mysterious car is following Moreau and Delmas and its headlights flash on to the boisterous burst of brassy horns. There is some minor distortion with the loudest of those blaring horns, but volume and clarity levels are predominantly consistent.
The disc’s one major extra, outside of its original French trailer and Cohen’s re-release trailer, is Keeping Up Appearances, a conversation between film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatly Vishnevetsky (35:50, HD). These critics, both of which are much more educated and insightful than myself, discuss Melville’s WWII experiences, his filmmaking history, the ‘true hero’ between Two Men in Manhattan’s two leads, the film’s box office disappointment, the cultural touchstones within the film, and end up mostly debating the morality of the entire Melville canon. They spend quite a bit of time discussing the director’s other films, which makes me feel a little better about the state of this review.
Viewers unfamiliar with Jean-Pierre Melville’s amazing filmography probably shouldn’t start their journey with Two Men in Manhattan, especially if they’re looking to instantly understand his influence, but it is still a fine example of his Hollywood-inspired work and a deceptively complex little noir. Cohen Media has done a bang-up job with this Blu-ray release, though the film’s age does show during the sequences Melville shot on actual Manhattan streets. I would’ve loved more extras, but the critical discussion we do get is plenty illuminating.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 17th September 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: PCM 2.0 French/English
Extras: Keeping Up Appearances, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Jean-Pierre Melville, Pierre Grasset, Christiane Eudes, Ginger Hall
Genre: Crime, Drama and Film-Noir
Length: 84 minutes
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