A noir director's career-capping
French resistance epic
At least as far as the movies go, the fecund
late '60s are a gift that keeps on giving.
As allusive as its title, Jean-Pierre Melville's
all but unknown Army of Shadows, a French
resistance saga madeóand tepidly receivedóin
1969, emerges from the mists of time in a new
35mm restoration as a career-capping epic tragedy.
Melville's gangster noirs Bob le Flambeur
(1955) and Le Doulos (1962) exhibited
a tendency toward abstraction that would culminate
in the cool geometry of his betrayed hit-man
thriller Le Samoura (1967). In the aftermath
of '68, Cahiers du CinÈma dismissed
Army of Shadows as "Gaullist film
art." But it's here that Melville fully
achieved his notion of the sublime, applying
Le Samoura''s "empty" compositions
and near theatrical blocking, as well as its
methodical suspense, cosmic fatalism, and sense
of grim solitude, to a subject far closer to
his heart, namely his own World War II experiences.
Adapted from Joseph Kessel's wartime novel,
Army of Shadows follows a taciturn resistance
agent (Lino Ventura) through a series of arrests,
escapes, and betrayals. The bulky, self-contained
Ventura had a long career playing tough guys,
including a gangster in Melville's 1966
Le DeuxiÈme Souffle. Here, wearing
glasses and carrying a briefcase, he's the
brains of the operation. Ventura looks like
an accountant and thinks like a chess master.
He has no past, no family, andóexcept
for brief moments of terroróno expression.
(Melville, however, indulges one bit of cinephilic
excitement not found in the novel. Briefly
in London, Ventura and his comrade Paul Meurisse
are shown exiting Gone With the Wind; one remarks
that "the war will be over for the French
when they can see this great movie.")
Dodging the Gestapo or, in an excruciating
scene, executing a traitor, Ventura is reason
made tangible, exuding a purity of purpose
beyond mere action. Similarly, his relations
with his comrades –Meurisse, Jean-Pierre
Cassel, Paul Crauchet, and playing a Lyons
housewife who creates a new identity in the
underground, a magnificent Simone Signoret
are bonds stronger than love. Moving from rainy
prison camps through sun-baked Marseilles and
blitzed London to the bleak windswept towns
of northern France,Army of Shadows sustains
an atmosphere of total paranoia, occasionally
leavened with existential pathos. Melville
gives a close-up and a great line I'll wait
five minutes but I won't wait a lifetime"–an
actress who never again appears. The fleeting
look with which Signoret acknowledges her fate
seems fixed in the heavens, like a constellation.
Although combat is constant, what's striking
about this war movie is the utter absence of
a conventional battlefield. (During his brief
London visit, Ventura visits a serviceman's
club where the dancing doesn't stop even when
the bombs start falling and the building shakes.
He alone is startled- it's a different theater
of operations.) War in Army of Shadows
is a problem to be solved or a theory tested,
often in a few seconds and almost always under
the most extreme circumstances.
Some may find Melville's tone too detached.
But the filmmaker who described his movie as
"a retrospective reverie" himself
something of a chess player. Only when his
vision reaches its chilling conclusion is it
apparent that the title is absolutely literal.
This really is an army of shadows. They are,
all of them, dead men.