“Army of Shadows” is Jean Pierre Melville’s late career masterpiece. Released in 1969, the film never made it to the U.S. until 2006, some 37 years later! At the time, Melville’s films were out of touch with the then popular French New Wave of Godard, Truffaut and company. Now available on DVD, via Criterion, this is a must see for film lovers. Based on a book by Joseph Kessel, who also wrote the novel that was the basis for Luis Bunnel’s classic Belle de Jour.
The film details the story of a group of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France. This is not the usual romanticized version of daring resistance fighters gloriously facing the German occupiers. Nor is it an action war film. It is a fatalistic, devastatingly dark look at the difficult choices made by this small group of individuals in order to survive. Posing as plain citizens, they spy on the Germans and report back information gathered to the Allies. The film was not popular with the French at the time since it portrayed some of the French as complacent or complicit in siding with the Germans.
The film opens with what must have been a chilling scene to the French; the German Nazi Army marching down the Champs-Elysees. The film goes on to detail a few months in the life of a small unit of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France. The unit is lead by Gerbier, portrayed by Lino Ventura, as a brooding, single-minded and dedicated figure. Also, part of the group, are Jean Francois (Jean Pierre Cassel), Claude (Claude Mann) and Mathilde (Simone Signoret).
Melville does not portray these people as heroic, refusing to show or give any empathy for what they do. They live in fear and feel ineffective. One of the more unsettling scenes shows the resistance fighters in an abandon house as they prepare to kill a terrified young traitor. These men are not professional killers; it’s the first time any of them have been in a position where they have to kill someone. They’re hesitant, unsure of what is the best way to proceed before deciding to strangle him. The scene is disturbing grabbing you and refusing to let go. In another tense scene the terrific Simone Signoret, disguised as a German nurse, along with two fellow resisters enters a German prison in an attempt to free one of their comrades who has been badly tortured. The man has been so badly beaten, they are told, it is impossible for them to transport him. Without any argument Signoret accepts what is said and they leave. To do otherwise would invite suspicion. These scenes contain no action, no music but are gripping and as tense as anything you will see. The film is filled with strong powerful scenes like this including a shocking ending that demonstrates the disturbingly grim difficult decisions that have to be made in war.
Melville’s use of muted colors dominate the entire film contributing to the unsettling, chilly and foreboding atmosphere. There are great performances by Lino Ventura, Jean Pierre Cassel and most magnificently by Simone Signoret.