is about members of the French Resistance
who persist in the face of despair. Rarely
has a film shown so truly that place in the
heart where hope lives with fatalism. It is
not a film about daring raids and exploding
trains, but about cold, hungry, desperate men
and women who move invisibly through the Nazi
occupation of France. Their army is indeed
made of shadows: They use false names, they
have no addresses, they can be betrayed in
an instant by a traitor or an accident. They
know they will probably die.
This is not a war film. It is about a state
of mind. Under the Vichy government of the
World War I hero Petain, France officially
permitted the Nazi occupation. Most Frenchmen
accepted it as the price of immunity from German
armies. DeGaulle runs the Free French movement
from London but is a voice on the radio and
commands no troops -- none except for those
in the Resistance, who pose as ordinary citizens,
lead two lives, spy on the Germans, provide
information to the Allies and sometimes carry
out guerrilla raids against the enemy.
Many films have shown such actions. Melville,
who was himself a member of the Resistance,
is not interested in making an action film.
Action releases tension and makes it external.
His film is about the war within the minds
of Resistance members, who must live with constant
fear, persist in the face of futility, accept
the deaths of their comrades and expect no
reward, except the knowledge that they are
doing the right thing. Because many die under
false names, their sacrifices are never known;
in the film, two brothers never discover that
they are both in the Resistance, and one dies
As one of his films after another is rediscovered,
Melville is moving into the ranks of the greatest
directors. He was not much honored in his lifetime.
We now know from his gangster film "Bob
le Flambeur" (1955) that he was an
early father of the New Wave -- before Godard,
Truffaut, Malle. He used actual locations,
dolly shots with a camera mounted on a bicycle,
unknown actors and unrehearsed street scenes,
everyday incidents instead of heightened melodrama.
In "Le Samourai" (1967), at
a time when movie hit men were larger than
life, he reduced the existence of a professional
assassin (Alain Delon) to ritual, solitude,
simplicity and understatement. And in "Le
Cercle Rouge" (1970), he showed police
and gangsters who know how a man must win the
respect of those few others who understand
the code. His films, with their precision of
image and movement, are startlingly beautiful.
Now we have the American premiere of perhaps
his greatest film (I have not seen them all,
but I will). When
was released in 1969, it was denounced
by the left-wing Parisian critics as "Gaullist,"
because it has a brief scene involving DeGaulle
and because it involves a Resistance supporting
his cause; by the late 1960s, DeGaulle was
considered a reactionary relic. The movie was
hardly seen at the time. This restored 35mm
print, now in art theaters around the country,
may be 37 years old, but it is the best foreign
film of the year.
It follows the activities of a small cell of
Resistance fighters based in Lyons and Paris.
Most of them have never met their leader, a
philosopher named Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse).
Their immediate commander is Philippe Gerbier,
played by Lino Ventura with a hawk nose and
physical bulk, introspection and implacable
determination. To overact for Ventura would
be an embarrassment. Working with him is a
woman named Mathilde (Simone Signoret), and
those known as Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel),
Le Masque (Claude Mann) and Felix (Paul Crauchet).
"Does your husband know of your activities?"
Mathilde is asked one day. "Certainly
not. And neither does my child." Signoret
plays her as a mistress of disguise, able to
be a dowdy fishwife, a bold whore, even a German
nurse who with two comrades drives an ambulance
into a Nazi prison and says she has orders
to transport Felix to Paris. The greatness
of her deception comes not as she impersonates
the German-speaking nurse, but when she is
told Felix is too ill to be moved. She instantly
accepts that, nods curtly, says "I'll
report that," and leaves. To offer the
slightest quarrel would betray them.
The members of this group move between safe
houses, often in the countryside. When they
determine they have a traitor among them, they
take him to a rented house, only to learn that
new neighbors have moved in. They would hear
a gunshot. A knife? There is no knife. "There
is a towel in the kitchen," Gerbier says.
We see the man strangled, and rarely has an
onscreen death seemed more straightforward,
To protect the security of the Resistance,
it is necessary to kill not only traitors but
those who have been compromised. There is a
death late in the film that comes as a wound
to the viewer; we accept that it is necessary,
but we do not believe it will happen. For this
death of one of the bravest of the group, the
leader Luc Jardie insists on coming out of
hiding because the victim "must see me
in the car." That much is owed: respect,
acknowledgement and then oblivion.
There are moments of respite. Airplanes fly
from England to a landing field on the grounds
of a Baron (Jean-Marie Robain) to exchange
personnel and bring in supplies and instructions.
Gerbier and Jardie are taken to London for
a brief ceremony with DeGaulle and see "Gone
With the Wind." Then they are back
Yes, there are moments of excitement, but they
hinge on decisions, not actions. Gerbier at
one point is taken prisoner and sent to be
executed. The Nazis march their prisoners to
a long indoor parade ground. Machine guns are
set up at one end. The prisoners are told to
start running. Anyone who reaches the far wall
without being hit will be spared -- to die
another day. Gerbier argues with himself about
whether he should choose to run. That is existentialism
Because he worked in the Resistance (and because
he was working from a well-informed 1943 Joseph
Kessel novel), Melville knew that life for
a fighter was not a series of romantic scenes
played in trench coats, but ambiguous everyday
encounters that could result in death. After
Gerbier escapes from Gestapo headquarters,
he walks into a barber shop to have his mustache
removed. The barber has a poster of Petain
on his wall. Not a word is said between the
two men. A sweating man at night who wants
his mustache removed is a suspect. As Gerbier
pays and readies to leave, the barber simply
hands him an overcoat of another color.
Such a moment feels realistic, and is perhaps
based on a real event. But "I had no intention
of making a film about the Resistance,"
Melville told the interviewer Rui Nogueira.
"So with one exception -- the German occupation
-- I excluded all realism." The exploits
of his heroes are not meant to reflect real
events as to evoke real states of mind. The
only big German scene is the opening shot,
of German troops marching on the Champs-Elysees.
It is one of the shots he is proudest of, Melville
said, and to make it he had to win an exemption
from a law that prohibited German uniforms
on the boulevard.
How did the Resistance fighters feel, risking
their lives for a country that had officially
surrendered? What were their rewards? In 1940,
Melville says, the Resistance in all numbered
only 600. Many of them died under torture,
including Jean Moulin, the original of Luc
Jardie. Kessel: "Since he was no longer
able to speak, one of the Gestapo chiefs, Klaus
Barbie, handed him a piece of paper on which
he had written, 'Are you Jean Moulins?' Jean
Moulin's only reply was to take the pencil
from Colonel Barbie and cross out the 's'."
Starring: Lino Ventura,
Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre
Cassel, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet and Christian
The restored print of opens Friday at the Music
Box and is in release around the country. A
DVD will follow. On
there are reviews of "Le Samourai,"
"Bob le Flambeur" and "Le