“There’s the legal system…procedure…the almost-theatrical aspect of the law. And behind all that…”
Those words are wearily spoken (in voiceover) by Germain Cazeneuve before we even realize the character is a social worker/passionate prisoner advocate. They also hang in the air until the conclusion of Two Men in Town/Deux Hommes dans la Ville, a blistering takedown of the French judicial system and capital punishment. (France used the guillotine to execute prisoners up until 1981, which is the year the country abolished the death penalty.)
“A criminal record and a ban from staying in cities are society’s two gifts for released prisoners.”
Germain (Jean Gabin) is headed toward retirement but seems particularly fond of the latest inmate he has helped get out of prison. Gino Strabliggi (Alain Delon) is a convicted safecracker with two years left on a 12-year sentence when he is released. His parole prohibits him from staying in Paris, so Gino rejoins his devoted wife Sophie (Ilaria Occhini) and sets about rebuilding his life in southern France. He remains close to Germain and his family, which includes adult children Evelyne (Cecile Vassort) and Frederic (Bernard Giraudeau). But a series of unfortunate circumstances and a personal tragedy threaten to lead Gino away from the straight and narrow.
The biggest threat comes from Chief Inspector Goitreau (Michel Bouquet), the dogged investigator who jailed Gino in the first place. Goitreau is convinced that Gino is planning another heist, which leads to Javert-like levels of obsessive harassment. It doesn’t help that Gino’s shady former accomplice Marcel (Victor Lanoux) keeps sniffing around wanting to pull a new job. There’s also the fact that the new woman in Gino’s life conveniently/coincidentally(?) works at the local bank.
Writer/director Jose Giovanni ultimately isn’t very interested in crafting an is he/isn’t he mystery surrounding Gino’s rehabilitation. Instead, the filmmaker cleverly structures the story in a way that makes the ex-con look guilty mostly on a superficial level. (Even seemingly inconsequential scenes, like Gino quarreling with a neighbor about music being played too loud, end up serving a purpose.) The point is that, unless you bother to look closer and really dedicate time to understanding the plight of people like Gino (as only Germain and a few others do), the cycle of crime and misery is likely to repeat itself in perpetuity. The director makes the case that even those with freedom — cramming into a metal tube every day, commuting to work a menial job — are in a different form of prison.
Less artful are the scenes where Germaine simply serves as a mouthpiece for Giovanni’s ideas about France’s criminal justice system. Then again, the filmmaker’s heavy-handed approach is pretty understandable considering his personal connection to the movie’s subject matter; Giovanni was a former petty gangster who spent some time on death row before being pardoned. He spent a good chunk of his prison years writing, so it’s no surprise that he’s a better scripter than director. (Giovanni uses cheesy slo-mo and aggressively sunny lighting to depict Gino’s perfect new life in south France; it looks like a Mentos commercial.) Two Men in Town includes a half-baked prison riot and culminates with a searing courtroom sequence that has elements of farce and tragedy. However, I didn’t find them quite as effective as the movie’s subtler touches, like Gino feeling disoriented and overwhelmed by fresh air upon first leaving prison.
Two Men in Town is the third and final collaboration between stars Gabin and Delon. Their scenes have a pleasing warmth that is ideal for the fatherly connection Germaine feels toward Gino. Gabin, one of the most significant figures in the history of French cinema, cedes a good deal of the spotlight to his younger co-star. Instead, he gives Germaine a quiet moral authority that feels earned. (Even if his director has already stacked things in his favor.) Delon, meanwhile, makes for a charismatic, tragic hero. The role might’ve been meatier if Giovanni had chosen to create some doubt about Gino turning over a new leaf. He’s still not nearly as one-dimensional as Bouquet’s Inspector Goitreau; the actor makes for a strong, icy antagonist, but he’s too cartoonishly evil to take completely seriously. Gerard Depardieu also pops up as a hot-headed member of Marcel’s new gang; it’s one of the actor’s earliest screen appearances, but his star quality was apparent even in his few minutes of screen time.
Two Men in Town ends with a somber, uncharacteristically quiet final image. The movie is about as subtle as the sledgehammer Gino uses to vent his frustration, but there is no denying its power.
Two Men in Town is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 26 mbps. This impressive 4K restoration alternates between looking strikingly modern and staying faithful to its 1970s origins. The first thing you’ll notice is the healthy amount of grain here, which gives this title the filmic texture most people associate with 1970s filmmaking. On the other hand, some interior medium shots and close-ups are surprisingly (and organically) clean and detailed without looking like they’ve been scrubbed free of any personality. Except for the comically idyllic scenes in south France, the movie has a chillier gray/blue palette that lends itself to slicker detail. There are no significant blemishes (scratchs, artifacting, etc.) to speak of. Overall, an exemplary restoration.
The LPCM Stereo 2.0 track is quite dynamic and seems to be faithful to the original sonic presentation. (Which, unfortunately, includes some rather wan sound design during the death of a key character.) The good news is there is no significant damage (hissing, popping) to report. Fidelity is spot-on here; the French dialogue is clear and plays well with Philippe Sarde’s evocative score.
Feature-length commentary with Jean Gabin biographer Charles Zigman: Zigman literally wrote the book on Gabin, so he offers some pretty good context on the star’s career and his collaborations with Delon. (The pair also starred together in 1963’s Any Number Can Win and 1969’s The Sicilian Clan.) He also offers some illuminating history on Giovanni’s background and the director’s personal connection to the subject matter. Zigman sounds as if he’s reading from prepared text, so this comes off more like a lecture than your typical conversational commentary. However, it’s still definitely worth a listen.
Original and 2015 Re-release Trailer
Forest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel starred in a recent remake of Two Men in Town that not many people saw. I can’t speak to the quality of that newer film (since I didn’t see it either), but I do recommend you check out the French original. You should absolutely not expect an even-handed presentation of a sensitive subject, but it’s a fine, flawed piece of 1970s French cinema with oodles of personal history embedded in its DNA.