French director Jean-Pierre Melville was one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, but his reputation in the United States has always suffered. That's partly due to bad timing: While Melville's taut, stylized film noir technique inspired the French New Wave in the late fifties, the legacies of the filmmakers associated with that movement has largely obscured his own achievements, even though they continued into the late sixties and early seventies with the masterfully suspenseful capers "Army of Shadows," "The Red Circle" and "Dirty Money." More recently, however, those late period Melville films have received belated U.S. releases ("Army of Shadows" crept onto several critics' year-end best-of lists when a restored print circulated in 2011); now, with The Cohen Film Collection's restoration of early Melville film "Two Men in Manhattan," the case for a thorough Melville retrospective to make the rounds is stronger than ever.
Though it doesn't have the assured, gripping touch of Melville's later work, "Two Men in Manhattan" has plenty of entertainment value and panache to make it more than a mere curiosity for Melville buffs. When the 1958 production premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week (marking its first-ever public screening in L.A.) artistic director and film critic David Ansen introduced the movie as "a New Wave film before the fact," which nails Melville's knack for loosely riffing on the shadowy, conspiratorial aspects of noir storytelling while also toying around with the atmosphere. The plot involves muckraking journalist Moreau (portrayed by Melville, in his only starring role, with a smarmy grin glued to his face) on the trail of a missing French delegate in New York City. Joining forces with seedy photographer Pierre (Pierre Grasset), the French journalist travels across a murky city over the course of one long, intriguing evening littered with enjoyable flourishes of pulp and camp.
Melville captures Manhattan's lively nightlife with exteriors ranging from Greenwich Village to Times Square, but many of the interiors were shot in France, and the movie often feels like an irreverent and sometimes curiously offbeat look at a French idea of American culture. Smoke-filled bars, cramped apartments and one tense exchange backstage at a Broadway show contain a strangely dreamlike feel, as the recurring motif of two Frenchmen interrogating a bunch of pouty Americans reflects a symbolic tension between dueling sensibilities. Some of the characters -- including the wife of the delegate who displays lesbian tendencies when the two men drop by to ask questions, and the airy blond actress who may or may not have something to do with his disappearance -- show cartoonish qualities that push the material into a wry form of self-parody that anticipates Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy" adaptation decades later.
Yet Melville clearly relishes the environment. Vibrant jazz music flares up whenever the characters travel from one place to another; Melville's reliance on excessive zooms and swish pans enliven the narrative flow, anticipating similar devices in like-minded works like "Breathless" just a few years later. At the same time, "Two Men in Manhattan" maintains a sincere plot about journalism ethics that has grown more potent with time. The camera-wielding Pierre's insistence of photographing various sources as the duo probe deeper into the mystery of the delegate's fate turns him into a proto-TMZ monstrosity. The finale involves an impressively understated showdown that involves no gunplay but rather a question of tabloid exploitation that places the movie's themes in the same league as Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole."
Intentionally or not, Melville's only American-produced feature delivers a rare blend of fun, occasionally silly pastiche and profound ideas that hints at the more advanced tonal range yet to come. Viewed in historical context, it sets the stage for the director's marriage of cautious pacing and unexpectedly sympathetic characters awash in a network of events with grand significance revealed in piecemeal fashion. Far from Melville's finest achievement, "Two Men in Manhattan" nevertheless proves that even lesser Melville offers some rare cinematic delights -- and that all Melville deserves more exposure.