Secrets. Films reviewed: Two Men in Manhattan, Army of Shadows, Rumble: Indians Rock the World

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, African-Americans, documentary, Drama, France, Indigenous, Manhattan, Music, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 28, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Is there anything you wouldn’t tell your partner, best friend or parents? This week I’m looking at movies about secrets: two classic French thrillers by Jean-Pierre Melville, and a new Canadian documentary. There’s French resistance fighters with secret identities, a journalist in Manhattan chasing a secret story, and the secret, indigenous roots of rock and roll.

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

Wri/Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville

It’s the late 1950s. Moreau (Jean Pierre Melville) is a reporter for AFP (Agence France-Presse), based in Manhattan, who receives a strange assignment. A top diplomat at the United Nations didn’t show up at the General Assembly… he has completely disappeared. The missing man is a French diplomat, and a war hero with a sterling reputation. Moreau has to track him down and find out what’s going on.

So Moreau turns to a freelance photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset) for help. Delmas is a notorious alcoholic and a womanizer, but one who knows what’s going on behind the scenes in downtown manhattan. Moreau has to drag him out of bed with his latest pickup to get him to come along.

Turns out Grasset was the right one to turn to – he knows how to find the diplomat by who he’s been scene with late at night. But while Moreau is a respected journalist, Grasset will do anything for a buck. Their search takes them to a series of meeting with exotic women: a jazz singer in her recording studio, an actress backstage at intermission, a stripper in her change room and a sex worker in her boudoir. And, unbeknownst to them, they’re being followed by a mysterious woman in a car. Will they find the diplomat, and if they do will the story be suppressed or sold to the highest bidder?

This is neat noirish movie with a moral dilemma on the ethics of journalism. It’s also the only time Melville appears in one of his own movies.

Army of Shadows (1969)

Wri/Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville (Based on the novel by)

It’s 1942 in Vichy France. Most of France is occupied by Germany, but for most people life hasn’t changed. But not for Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) a middle-class engineer. He is arrested by gendarmes, not by Nazis,  and sent to a relocation camp, built by the French to hold prisoners of war from Germany. Now it’s the other way around.

The camp holds a ragtag assortment of Russians, Poles, Jews, Algerians, Communists, as well as random Frenchmen arrested for no known reason. He has plans to escape with a young communist but is suddenly sent to the Gestapo headquarters for interrogation. After a daring escape, he joins a Resistance cell in Marseille consisting of tight knit group of men and one woman:

There’s handsome Jean Francois (Jean Pierre Cassel) who is in awe of his older brother, a philosopher. Mathilde (Simone Signoret) is a tactical genius, inventing fantastical ways to break into enemy headquarters without being noticed (Signoret convincingly switches from French to German). Other members are known only by their code names: La Masque, Le Bison, Felix. Together they smuggle allied forces to safety in England, relay messages sent by radio, and keep one another out of the hands of the enemy. Army of Shadows is a realistic thriller, based on a novel by a member of the French resistance( as was the director himself – in fact Melville was his nom de guerre)

It’s full of dark episodes and plot twists, that doesn’t portray the French, including the Resistance, in the best light. It’s full of secrets and lies, and the cold-blooded executions of their own comrades and closest friends who may have divulged secrets.

The movie bombed when it was first released – perhaps it was still too close to the events it portrayed, or maybe its politics didn’t jibe with Paris in 1969 – but decades later, after it was finally released on North America, it was a critical success. It is now considered a masterpiece.  Ventura, Cassel, and especially Signoret are all fantastic.

A must-see.

Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World

Dir: Catherine Bainbridge, Alfonso Maiorana

When people talk about rock and roll they’re sure to mention its influences: jazz, blues, folk and country. It uses tunes from Europe, rhythms from West Africa but with words and feelings that are purely American. But what about aboriginal North Americans – First Nations, Metis and Native Americans? This documentary looks at both the musicological influences and the genetics of the musicians themselves – the drummers, guitarists and singers most people took for white, black or hispanic.

Link Wray pioneered the use of guitar feedback (his hit Rumble was a huge influence on bands from Led Zeppelin to the Who). He was Shawnee. Robbie Robertson, founding member of The Band, is Mohawk and learnt his music on the Six Nations reserve. Early blues great Charley Patton was Choctaw, and singer Mildred Bailey was Couer d’Alene.

The film covers territory from centuries past to present-day struggles, like activist and folk singer Buffy Ste Marie who performed at Standing Rock. And many of the black musicians who still perform at the New Orleans Mardi Gras dressed in “tribal” costume are descended from indigenous ancestors.

Music styles covered in the movie range from heavy metal to pop rock, country to folk, and soul to R&B. The musicians point out the singing styles, the drums from their childhoods.

Rumble is a really great music doc.

Rumble opens today in Toronto at the Hot Docs cinema; check your local listings. Two Men in Manhattan and Army of Shadows are part of the Jean Pierre Melville retrospective, Army of Shadows: The Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville, which continues through August. Go to tiff.net for details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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