DVD Review– Manhattan Night
Manhattan Night is based on the novel Manhattan Nocturne by Colin Harrison. I’m not sure why the second word in the title was changed. When the movie was first in development, Nocturne was being used, but shortly before the film was released, it was switched to Night. If the powers that be figured that the audience wouldn’t know what a nocturne is, that’s just insulting.
At mystery-themed conferences for writers and fans, it’s a running gag that discerning attendees should always stay the heck away from panels discussing the question “What is noir?” The inside joke is that such discussions are usually pretentious and fail to capture the nuances and (no pun intended) brightest aspects of the genre. Manhattan Night seems to be very sure that it’s a modern noir, but while it apes many of the classic elements of the genre, from the tortured antihero to the femme fatale to the twisty investigation, something’s off—dramatically so.
The painter Thomas Kincade was often mocked and critically excoriated for his self-description as a “painter of light.” Many of his sharpest detractors pointed out a critical stylistic problem with Kincade’s paintings. The “light” that filled the paintings wasn’t coming from a consistent source. In a painting drawn from life, the light in the image would come from the sun, or from candle flames, or fireplaces. The light would radiate from the natural source, fading with distance and casting shadows in appropriate directions. In Kincade’s work, light seemingly emanates from bushes and stones and walls and all kinds of other impossible sources that make the shading and colors oddly unnatural.
Manhattan Night has the opposite problem. It’s trying to be a “movie of darkness,” but the darkness doesn’t come from a consistent source. The darkness coming from certain characters isn’t necessarily proportionate from where it ought to be, especially as we learn new revelations about them. Toward the end, one character comments on the effects of lingering internal darkness, but the darkness doesn’t seem to be coming from genuine guilt (which would be understandable and could be relieved by repentance and redemption). Instead, the darkness acts like some smoky, unseen force that clings to the character’s insides and poisons the personality. Much of the darkness does come from one twisted character, but much of the additional darkness seems to emanate from impossible or improper sources, much like Kincade’s use of light. Why are certain characters so messed up and dark? Better answers than what the film provides are needed.
The storyline sees Porter Wren (Adrien Brody), a newspaper columnist who is painfully aware of the precariousness of his job and industry, meeting the beautiful widow Caroline Crowley (Yvonne Strahovski) who asks him to investigate the unsolved killing of her husband. Wren soon starts digging into the mysterious—and stomach-turning—life of an auteur filmmaker (Campbell Scott) who is increasingly revealed to have been a remarkably horrid human being. The situation is complicated by Porter and Caroline’s affair, despite the fact that Porter is married (to a character played by Jennifer Beals) with kids. Throw in blackmail and some extremely self-aware subplots about the nature of film and you’ve got a twisty mystery that seeks to dive straight down into the darkest depths of human nature, but unfortunately the film often gets mired in the shallows.
The problems with the movie are glaringly obvious. There’s a real tawdriness to the multiple sex scenes, which seem to scream out that they’re deliberately exploiting the actors involved just because they can. Some of the dialogue is clunky, and often too on-the-nose. When one character comments about how he’s going to hell because of the sex he’s about to have, it’s hard for the viewer not to yell, “Damn right! Run away!” Not only that, but Scott’s character (played quite effectively as a totally loathsome slimeball and manipulator), shown in flashbacks, is constantly changing his appearance. The man shown early in the film looks almost nothing like the man depicted at the end. There may have been a profound artistic reason for this, but it comes across as if Scott were repeatedly called back for reshoots after altering his look for other projects.
Despite the problems with the film—and there are many of them—there’s a real sense that Manhattan Night could have been a really terrific movie if only a somewhat different artistry were applied to certain aspects of it. Brody is too focused on exploring the darkness of his character, but if he’d focused on little more on playing up his feelings for his family rather than mentioning them as a focus for his motivations, his character would’ve come across as more fully rounded. Beals is quite strong as the only really likeable character in the cast, but her part is cut too short and not given enough chance to shine; she’s largely absent from the final act, and it would’ve had more infinitely more impact to see her reaction to certain developments rather than having been merely told about it. Best of all is Strahovski, who illustrated in Dexter that she’s great playing a villainess and proved in Chuck that she’s even better playing a heroine with genuine emotions. The character of Caroline Crowley is largely an archetype in many early scenes, but toward the end, when Caroline is allowed to be an actual human being and to show real pain and distress, Strahovski gives by far the most powerful performance in the movie. Had the genuinely talented Beals and Strahovski been allowed to develop their characters in a more well rounded and emotionally resonant fashion for the entire film, the results could have been electric.
In spite of—or perhaps because of—the film’s many shortcomings, it should be required viewing for anybody who seeks to write in the noir genre. Manhattan Night is one of the most effective depictions I’ve ever seen of the unfortunate effects of going too far in some aspects of the genre while falling short of others.