Rialto Pictures


MELVILLE ON "ARMY OF
   SHADOWS "

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WHAT THE CRITICS SAY

 BOSTON GLOBE
    BOSTON HERALD
    BOXOFFICE
    CHICAGO READER
    CHICAGO SUN TIMES
    CHICAGO TRIBUNE
    DAILY NEWS
    EUROPEAN WEEKLY
    FILM COMMENT
    LA TIMES
    THE NEW REPUBLIC
    NEW YORK OBSERVER
    NEW YORK POST
    NEW YORK TIMES
    THE NEW YORKER
    NEWSWEEK
    PHILADELPHIA CITY PAPER
    PREMIERE
    SALON.COM
    SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER
    SEATTLE TIMES
    THE STRANGER
    TIME
    TIME OUT NEW YORK
    VILLAGE VOICE


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What the Critics Say About ARMY OF SHADOWS

     By MICHAEL WILMINGTON Chicago Tribune movie critic
  (out of four)

Jean-Pierre Melville's --a 1969 French film classic now getting its first U.S. theatrical release--is a dry, dark, terrifying tale of WW II France as experienced by a handful of Resistance fighters, mostly doomed, during a few wintry months in 1942 and '43.

During this dangerous time, the German army occupies France; the film's first astonishing shot is an image, painstakingly re-created, of Nazi soldiers marching in front of the Arc de Triomphe. With the French army crushed and Britain under heavy bombardment, the main battles in France are undertaken by the Resistance, a shadow army of saboteurs and guerrillas, trying desperately to keep the fight alive.

As we follow the deadly progress of Resistance agent Philippe Gerbier (played by Lino Ventura, star of Melville's heist thriller classic "Le Deuxieme Souffle"), through a France controlled by enemies, we're irresistibly reminded of the great Melville gangster thrillers ("Souffle," "Le Samourai") that made the director's fame. In those films, quiet, deadly men in raincoats, snap-brim hats and suits move through a cold world where death is omnipresent and betrayal seems inevitable.

It's been argued that Melville's Resistance tales were influenced by his gangster movies, but the reverse viewpoint seems more plausible. The mood and feeling of his classic crime films, about things remote from his experience, were probably fed by his Resistance memories. (Melville, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, was a member of the Resistance networks Liberation and Combat; "Melville," from the novelist Herman, was one of his wartime pseudonyms.) The center of "Army" is the cold-eyed, bespectacled, soft-spoken Gerbier--whom we first see arriving at a French concentration camp Oct. 20, 1942. The mood of the camp is caught swiftly and scarily; later, en route to another prison, Gerbier, with chilling ease, kills a guard and escapes, then moves into the underground. There, we meet his fellow fighters: haggard, wary Felix (Paul Crauchet), flight-jacketed lady-killer Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), thin, angelic-looking "Le Masque" (Claude Mann), warm-hearted tough guy "Le Bison" (Christian Barbier), the intellectual head man Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse)--and Mathilde (Simone Signoret), the brave, matronly looking lady whom they all love and who, like all of them, lives in constant danger.

It's an odd group. They have little support inside or outside France. The British army has scant faith in the Resistance. Except for "Bison," none of them looks much like soldiers. Gerbier is an engineer and Luc a noted professor/author, with five pre-war books to his credit.

Most of them operate under false identities--in such anonymity that, though Luc and Jean-Pierre are brothers, they don't realize that they're both in the underground. Always, they're under the shadow of death, either at the hands of enemies or, tragically, of friends.

In this world seemingly without joy or hope, under skies often overcast (a showing of "Gone With the Wind," on a London trip, is a rare diversion) they keep fighting, sustained by friendship and faith. The movie proceeds, with the implacability of a death sentence, to Sunday, Feb. 23, 1943, and one of the grimmest last scenes and most merciless codas in the French cinema.

A film masterpiece, restored more than three decades after its French release, "Army" remains a superb, coolly accurate portrait of a living hell recalled by two men who knew it well and record it truly, Melville and novelist Joseph Kessel (who also wrote Luis Bunuel's "Belle de Jour"). Both were Resistance veterans, and Kessel's novel is filled with portraits of men they knew. (Andre Dewavrin, a.k.a. "Colonel Passy," a major Resistance figure, plays himself in the movie.) The film is an undoubted labor of love: Melville spent 25 years trying to make it.

has long and deservedly been a legendary film among movie buffs; it's a great work. But you can tell why U.S. distributors may have been shy of it. It's long, slow and downbeat. Classically constructed and immaculately shot, it ran somewhat counter to the tastes of an era when the favored films about politics or war tended to be epic and schmaltzy like "Patton," or jazzy and incandescent, like "M*A*S*H" and "Z."

Yet the film--like the book, a favorite of Resistance veterans--has worn superbly well. Today, still resonates with the truth and tragedy of its awful yet sometimes beautiful time. It becomes overwhelming as we watch--a classic of life in the underground, of terror, love, friendship, betrayal, and of death hovering over all.

'Army of Shadows'
Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville; based on the novel by Joseph Kessel; photographed by Pierre Lhomme; edited by Francoise Bonnot; art direction by Theobald Meurisse; music by Eric de Marsan; produced by Jacques Dorfmann. In French, with English subtitles. A Rialto Pictures release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 2:20. No MPAA rating. Adult. Parents cautioned for violence and discussions of sexual themes.
Philippe Gerbier - Lino Ventura
Mathilde - Simone Signoret
Luc Jardie - Paul Meurisse
Francois - Jean-Pierre Cassel
Le Masque - Claude Mann
The barber - Serge Reggiani
Felix - Paul Crauchet
"Colonel Passy" - Himself (Andre Dewavrin)

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