of Shadows' throws light on Vichy
An eerie foreshadowing of Steven Spielberg's
''Munich," Jean-Pierre Melville's
1969 French resistance thriller ''Army of
Shadows" (''L'Armee des ombres")
arrives on these shores for the first time,
and it's easy to see why it has been neglected.
It is altogether too forthright about widespread
French collaboration with the Nazis during
the German occupation and the Nazi-puppet,
Marshal Petain-headed Vichy government.
Directed by noir master Melville (''Le Samourai")
and based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, the
film begins in the dark year of 1942 (Petain's
name and visage are everywhere) and tells the
story of resistance leader Philippe Gerbier
(wrestler-turned-leading man Lino Ventura).
Sporting such colorful noms de guerre as Le
Masque (Claude Mann) and Le Bison (Christian
Barbier), Gerbier's fellow fighters join him
in dangerous assignments.
Among them are smuggling downed RAF pilots
out of the country and identifying and executing
traitors. In one sequence, Gerbier and his
team bring a condemned man to a safe house
only to learn the adjoining residence has been
rented to a large family. Unable to shoot their
terrified young captive, they resort to horribly
garroting him. Also among Gerbier's most trusted
comrades is mistress of disguise Madame Mathilde
(French screen iconSimone Signoret), a fearlessfemale
Combining his own experiences in the resistance
with Kessel's story, co-screenwriter Melville,
France's gangster-movie auteur, fashioned a
dark wartime epic for these war-torn times.
His fatalistic observations are universal and
banal: War breeds heroism in some, evil in
others and brings out the extraordinary in
ordinary people. Gerbier's favorite piece of
advice to recruits and veterans alike: Keep
the cyanide tablets handy.
A scene in which a captured Gerbier distracts
a frightened, young guard, stabs him in the
throat with his own bayonet and escapes looks
simple, if you have nerves of steel.
Italy-born Ventura's great virtue as an actor
is his physical and emotional credibility.
Built like a fireplug with a ruggedly handsome
peasant's face, he was a character sprung from
the naturalistic pages of Emile Zola,
a salt of the earth.
The film's restoration, overseen by cinematographer
Pierre Lhomme (''Camille Claudel,"
''Le Divorce"), and its first-time
release in the United States are a cause for
celebration among movie lovers in general and
World-War-II-movie lovers in particular. Once
seen, these ''Shadows" of war will
haunt you for a long time.
(''Army of Shadows"