The HBO television hit True Detective (2014) on its face is a mystery thriller with gothic overtones. The pursuit of justice for children disappeared and remembered only by loved ones and an obsessed damaged cop, is itself a dark journey through a dank swamp of troubled minds. Here is where the resonance of writer Nic Pizzolatto’s story has its source. Not so much in the plot-line of moral corruption and cover-up, but in the troubled lives of the two detectives and of those on the periphery of the search for a deranged killer in the seductively scenic bayous of Louisiana. One a desperately lonely man trying to escape his deadening upbringing and a family tragedy, in a fervid nihilism that is probably right yet not a way anyone can live without drowning in booze, cigarettes, and drugs. His desperation is not quiet. More vocal and in your face. His partner is a man who refuses to grow up, to face his aging visage in the mirror, or the imperatives of his familial obligations. He destroys that which he holds most dear through neglect and sexual indulgence. Then there are the lost souls encountered on the way. The preacher lost to disillusion and alcoholism. The mother who has lost a daughter first to drugs and prostitution, and lastly to murder, her hands toxically disfigured by workplace exposure to dry cleaning fluid. And the parents who have lost children and are in a place between living and dying.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Deux Hommes dans Manhattan (1959) is a monochrome homage to New York, yet manages to be a caustic satire on the values that drive the neon-encrusted metropolis. Where night brings to light the fractured morality feeding the mill grinding out the glitz. A French diplomat has disappeared and a journalist from Agence France-Press sets out to find him. The journalist recruits another French ex-pat to help. A paparazzo and a lush with the right connections. The search for the married diplomat’s girlfriends ergo the diplomat covers a night and early morning on the streets and in the dives of Manhattan. An ironic jazz score, “cool” ambient music, and surreal encounters with spaced-out women give a bizarre edge to the scenario. Melville’s cuts and edits give the visuals an added bounce. The photography is crisp and there is a vibrant 50s feel. But the vibe is French. Melville and his DP Nicola Hyer portray the city through a continental filter. A comparison with Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) filmed in New York at around the same time underlines this most strange phenomenon.
Orson Welle’s The Trial (1962) is a vivid and faithful realisation of Franz Kafka’s dystopian novel. Another monochrome metropolis where soulless apartment buildings with claustrophobic low ceilinged rooms exist across a wasteland of highways and desolate empty blocks – a city sadly reminiscent of today’s Detroit. Monumental buildings exist but in an unreality where solitary figures fretfully traverse from massive offices laid out like factories to decaying baroque edifices infested with nameless operatives, accused ciphers, nymphomaniacs, tribunals held in massive arenas in front of baying hysterical crowds, and horrid basement cells where corporal punishment is meted out to erring cops. The Trial is your worst nightmare – and a significant rumination on the unfathomable vagaries of fate and the cruel anonymity and isolation of entrapment.