Rialto Pictures


MELVILLE ON "ARMY OF
   SHADOWS "

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What the Critics Say About ARMY OF SHADOWS

 


 By ANDREW SARRIS © 2006

Sublime Army of Shadows Remembers French Resistants
Jean-Pierre Melville’s magnificent Army of Shadows (1969), from his own screenplay, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel, is belatedly making its American debut at Film Forum on April 28 under the aegis of Rialto Pictures. It took Melville (1917-1973) 25 years to bring Kessel’s 1943 novel to the screen after he read it in London, where he and Kessel were serving with the Free French. Ironically, the movie received mixed reviews from the French critics, especially the post–nouvelle vague reviewers at Cahiers du Cinema, who dismissed it as an outdated homage to the deposed and discredited Charles de Gaulle after the riots of 1968. Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) came out just after Army of Shadows, and it reflected a widespread skepticism in France and elsewhere about the true extent of French resistance to the German occupation.
 
Melville himself shared in this skepticism. In a 1971 interview with Rui Nogueira, he asked rhetorically, “Do you know how many Resistants there were in France at the end of 1940? Six hundred. It was only in February or March 1943 that the situation changed, because the first maquis date from April 1943. And it was the proclamation by Sauckel about sending young people to Germany that made a lot of people prefer to go underground. It was not a matter of patriotism.”

Seen today, Army of Shadows is revealed as a sublime tribute to the mostly doomed precious few who responded to the call of conscience in resisting the Nazi occupiers and the French traitors who collaborated with them. Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier is one of seven composite characters drawn from real-life models of martyrdom in the early years of the occupation. The others are the resourceful Mathilde, played by Simone Signoret; Luc Jardie, the chief, played by Paul Meurisse; the extraordinarily self-sacrificing François, played by Jean-Pierre Cassel; Claude La Masque, played by Claude Mann; Felix, played by Paul Crauchet; Le Bison, played by Christian Barbier; the Baron de Ferte-Talloire, played by Jean-Marie Robain; and Sere Reggiani making a cameo appearance as a resistant barber helping Gerbier escape from a Gestapo jail.
 
There are no spectacular triumphs for these shadow combatants, only the constant, fear-drenched danger of being caught, tortured and executed by the relentless forces arrayed against them. Of necessity, they became ruthless themselves with comrades who betrayed them. Where Melville is most masterly is in his placidly matter-of-fact pacing of these life-and-death existences. For a comparable cinematic achievement, I can think only of Roberto Rossellini’s equally sublime evocation of wartime heroism under existential pressure in General della Rovere (1959). Army of Shadows is a film to be seen and savored for its moral magnitude.

 Melville made a memorable cameo appearance in Jean Luc-Godard’s Breathless (1960), portraying a pompous best-selling novelist being interviewed by Jean Seberg:

SEBERG: What is your greatest ambition in life?
 
MELVILLE: To become immortal … and then die.
 
Immortality’s a hard thing to calculate, but in his 13-film career (mostly in the genre of film noir), Melville has cast a haunting shadow of his own in film history.

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