Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; Written by Jean-Pierre Melville

A cynical celebration of New York

New York is simultaneously an icon and eyesore. It’s a Mount Olympus, a city in the sky bathed in a golden shimmer of human ambition, achievement and ascension. Sinatra sang about it, the 90s Yankees proved it. 

Crushed underneath that pedestal, however, are millions who live in skid row, doing what they can to face another day, and a great many films have shown that divide, focusing on one over the other – Two Men in Manhattan captures both with clarity and depth of feeling.

It all begins at the United Nations, bastion of human cooperation, the noblest of human pursuits. Iconic and totemic, director Melville introduces it with a shot from below, allowing it its full imposing stature. He soon, however, pulls back to view it from afar, showing its lone shape apart in an otherwise industrial part of town, smokestacks busily fuming downriver. 

It’s from this very place a French diplomat has gone missing, and director Melville does double duty appearing also on screen as Moreau, the journalist who’s tasked with tracking the diplomat down. He enlists freelance gossip mag photographer Delmas to assist, a career alcoholic whose taste for liquor and women (call it networking!) makes him an adept fixer for the treacherous terrain of the New York night. 

The depiction of New York’s dual character, the grime alongside the glam, continues as Moreau and Delmas run down leads in the back alleys of New York, wheeling through Broadway’s backstage and the dingy dressing rooms of burlesque dancers, only to stumble back out onto the city’s pitch black streets above which the city’s skyline shines bright. To underline the duality, Christian Chevalier’s and Martial Solal’s jazz score blares out both intrigue and despair, like a siren’s call meant to warn instead of seduce.

Two Men in Manhattan isn’t Melville’s most polished feature. The editing, both in picture and sound, sometimes makes less than graceful leaps, but while it might not be a technical victory lap, Melville’s pacing and atmospheric conjuring is still a sordid delight. You can smell the cigarette smoke and feel the slick pavement underfoot as you try to keep up with the uncanny duo of the doleful would-be detective Moreau and the cynical Delmas, who split between them the manners of the noir genre’s antihero protagonist. 

Two Men in Manhattan is cynical, but it doesn’t forget that for every cruel act is a devastated victim, and every suave exterior has its cursed innards. It’s a full film, quick to catch both the dark and the light that draws the shadow’s edge, resulting in a mystery that more than overdelivers on the modest promise of its title.  

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