You never know who you'll meet in the big city.
Why, it's Jean-Pierre Melville, the French master of crime and suspense, the direcor of Le Samourai and Army of Shadows. Don't let his sleepy demeanor deceive you; he's a busy man today. Melville isn't just writing and directing this picture, but he's acting as well -- in fact, though he doesn't take top billing, Monsieur Modest is the main character of the story. And he shares a cinematography credit with Nicolas Heyer. He's in New York to shoot exteriors (and the interior of a subway train) and establish atmosphere; he'll shoot the other interiors back home in France. They don't really match that well, but Melville's Manhattan is less a physical place than a territory of mood and music. His opening credits play over Times Square to establish his bona fides, but his camera sets the tone by pulling inexorably away from the familiar crossroads of the world toward darker, more nondescript places. The music still says Manhattan, however, if not America, or 1959. Some of it sounds like library music but much of it is jazzily evocative the way Melville intended. This French film could be the soundtrack for a certain strata of America at the end of the Fifties, where rock 'n roll hasn't reached yet, where the tone of the vibraphone is the church bell of sophistication ringing through the midnight fog cigarette smoke across a sea of booze. They call this film an homage to film noir but it's more of a homage to its own time than to the decade past. It's a Fifties, not a Forties film, in spirit as well as fact.
It might remind you of a Thirties film, since Melville's hero is a reporter hunting a story. He writes for Agence France-Presse and his job is to track down a French diplomat who didn't show up that afternoon at the U.N. Melville acknowledges New York as the capital of the world through his attention to the U.N., portraying its headquarters as an eerie monolith perched like an upright domino begging to be toppled into the river. His quest takes him from this heart of the world into the Manhattan demimonde, descending from a Broadway theater -- the Mercury Theater, mind you, since there's something Wellsian, evocative not only of Kane but Arkadin, to the story -- to a Capitol Records studio to a burlesque club, tracking down women known to be lovers of the diplomat. But the path of the hard-boiled newshound is also the path of Sidney Falco, and Melville's sidekick, the photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset) is a man on the make, looking for his opportunity to get a scoop, or to catch an entertainer topless when she isn't looking.
It may not have been too soon for Melville to be influenced by Sweet Smell of Success, and in any event Burt Lancaster is spiritually present in Times Square -- his picture Separate Tables is playing in one of the long-gone movie palaces while the credits roll. While Melville hints at characteristic suspense by having himself and Grasset tailed by a mysterious car, the story eventually resolves itself into a moral dilemma. Reporter and photographer find the diplomat dead in an actress's apartment, tipped off by news of her intermission suicide attempt at the Mercury. For Delmas it's the opportunity of a lifetime that only grows bigger when it turns out that AFP intends to cover up the sordid circumstances of the diplomat's demise. The truth grows only more lucrative if it catches someone in a lie. The funny part of it is that Delmas is willing to lie in a similar way. Melville's boss has him move the body from the apartment to a car, but Delmas had earlier moved it from the couch where they found him to the more provocatively photogenic bed. The news agency and the government have their reasons for the cover-up, among them being the deceased's reputation as a hero of the Resistance, but Delmas's resistance to their scheme is no blow for Freedom or Truth but a hunt for the Buck or the Franc. Melville's character goes along with the cover-up with no real enthusiasm. but when it becomes clear to him that Delmas is willing to disgrace the diplomat's innocent family to get his scoop, then there has to be a showdown ... or does there?
The new DVD of the film -- its American debut on home video -- sports a Tarantino blurb equating Melville with Sergio Leone, and maybe for that reason I caught a faint hint of Pulp Fiction in the way a fixer tells our protagonists how to deal with a dead body while telling a tale of wartime heroism. I wouldn't make too much of that, though I suppose the atmosphere of homage makes Deux Hommes Melville's most Tarantinian film. It may not seem very Melvillian to those used to his suspense classics of the Sixties; there's a more overt sense of fun, of Melville living out a fantasy of his own, than you'll get in his masterpieces. His enthusiasm overrides most of the awkwardness that comes inevitably from the mismatch of interiors and exteriors and the casting of Francophones as stilted-sounding Americans. Acknowledge the film as homage instead of mimesis and most objections to its awkward moments will fade away. It's a labor of love more than anything else, and I kinda like it that way.