Favorite Films: Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

French Film Director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973)

You have to admit it: He looks like an American. But he comes by it honestly. Not only is he a hero of the French Resistance during the Second World War, but his code name was Melville, based on his love of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, born an Alsatian Jew in Paris; but he signed all his films as Jean-Pierre Melville.

I have seen four of Melville’s thirteen films. Although the French New Wave of the 1960s resulted in a publicity windfall for Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Alain Resnais, there were many French directors who never became quite so well-known across the Atlantic. Jean-Pierre Melville is one of them. Others include Jacques Becker, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol.

Two Men in Manhattan (Deux Hommes dans Manhattan) is like a Valentine dedicated to New York City at night. A newsman for Agence France Presse in New York is told to investigate the non-appearance of a French diplomat at the United Nations. Moreau (played by Melville himself) looks up his paparazzi friend Delmas. Together, they search for three known past girlfriends of the diplomat, including a Broadway actress, a jazz singer, and a stripper. They even visit a high-priced prostitute known to favor diplomats. When they find that he has died in a girlfriend’s apartment, a conflict erupts when Delmas sees the potential for selling photos that show his death to have been a squalid one. It turns out the deceased was a hero in the Resistance, and Moreau’s boss wants the negatives of the pictures Delmas took.

French Title for Two Men in Manhattan

In no American film of the period have I seen such beautiful scenes of night-time Manhattan. The exteriors in this film are lovely, and the scuttlebutt is that Melville shot them himself. If so, I would regard it as high on the list of the best noir films, irrespective of country of origin.

If you should rent the DVD, I suggest you also watch the extra footage of a conversation between Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, two knowledgeable film critics who provide excellent background to the movie and Melville’s career.

 

French Noir? Obscurité Française?

Still from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967)

It sounds a bit odd to talk about French noir literature and films, mainly because noir is a French word. Perhaps I should be talking about Obscurité Française. This afternoon, I watched a work of that master of French noir, Jean-Pierre Melville. His film Le Samouraï is a masterpiece, both in its spare visual style and its typical noir attributes. Alain Delon as Jef Costello, the hit man, is a pleasure to watch, as is François Périer, the police superintendent, who goes all out to arrest Jef based on his belief that his alibi would not hold up.

Melville has made other excellent noir films as well, including Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos (1963). But Le Samouraï is his best by far.

In addition to noir films, the French are no strangers to noir fiction. Yesterday, I read Three to Kill (1976) by the late Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942-1995), who also wrote Fatale (1977) and Ivory Pearl (1996), the latter of which was unfinished. I am also interested in reading works by Boris Vian (1920-1959), author of I Spit On Your Graves (1946).

The United States has an embarrassment of riches in the genre, starting with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and continuing with David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Charles Willeford, Jim Thompson, Dorothy B. Hughes, Kenneth Fearing, W. R. Burnett, and a host of others. They are one of the joys of recent American literature which I have been taking advantage of during this long, hot summer.