Army Of Shadows (L'armee Des Ombres 1969)


Melville, who had participated in the French Resistance himself, this tragic masterpiece, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, recounts the struggles and sacrifices of those who fought in the Resistance. Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and the incomparable Simone Signoret star as intrepid underground fighters who must grapple with their conception of honor in their battle against Hitler’s regime. Long underappreciated in France and unseen in the United States, the atmospheric and gripping thriller Army of Shadows is now widely recognized as the summit of Melville’s career, channeling the exquisite minimalism of his gangster films to create an unsparing tale of defiance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.


Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" 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.

The film was adapted by Jean-Pierre Melville, a veteran of both the Resistance and the Free French Army, from Joseph Kessel's 1943 novel. Shot in 1959, this doom-laden movie of tragic grandeur celebrates the stoic heroism of the Maquis. It came just before French films about the Occupation took on a darker, more critical tone with The Sorrow and the Pity, Lacombe Lucien and, more recently, Jaques Audiard's Un Héros Très Discret.

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.

Now we have the American premiere of perhaps his greatest film (I have not seen them all, but I will). When "Army of Shadows" 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, and final.

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.

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