The defiantly independent French director Jean-Pierre Melville was an outsider by choice. He financed his films outside of the studio system and built his own studio for maximum independence. He loved American cinema and made his reputation with a brilliant series of cool gangster thrillers, beginning with elegant, elegiac Bob le Flambeur (1955) and culminating in the austere masterpiece Le Samourai (1967), with Alain Delon as an existential assassin, and the heist classic Le Cercle Rouge (1970).
Army of Shadows, adapted from the 1943 novel by Joseph Kessel about the early years of the French Resistance, is the third of Melville’s three dramas set during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II (after his debut feature, La Silence de la Mer , and his 1961 drama Leon Morin, Priest), but by far his most personal. During World War II, Melville was himself a member of the Resistance, worked for French intelligence in London, and served in the Free French forces in the liberation of Italy and France. “This is my first movie showing things I’ve actually known and experienced,” Melville told Rui Nogueria in Nogueria’s 1971 interview book with the director. Kessler’s book is a work of fiction, but the characters were inspired by real life figures.
The episodic, almost fractured drama follows a year in the life of Resistance leader Philippe Gerbier (played by Lino Ventura, who previously starred in Melville’s still unavailable gangster drama Le Deuxieme Souffle, 1966) and the members of his cell beginning in the fall of 1942. This is before the tide of war had turned, when their numbers were tiny and their efforts were driven by outrage and desperation more than by hope. The film takes us through military assignments, captures and interrogations, escape attempts (successes and failures), and the hard necessity of executing one of their own. Melville plays none of it for grand melodrama or heart-pounding action, wiping away the patriotic nostalgia and grand heroism that had previously defined the French Resistance film. Army of Shadows takes place almost completely in the cold, hazy winter light of overcast days, in sparsely populated streets, deserted countrysides, and blandly unmemorable jail cells and military offices.
Gangster movie icon Ventura plays Gerbier with an observant stillness and coiled calm. Masked only by a pair of glasses and face that betrays almost no emotion, he looks no more dangerous than the accountant next door, but behind the careful body language and deliberate action is a patient and pragmatic man as compassionate to his comrades (especially his devoted deputy, played with understated gravitas by Simone Signoret) as he is resolute with traitors.
Paul Meurisse co-stars as the commander, Luc Jardie (partly modeled on legendary Resistance hero Jean Moulin, and Gerbier’s team members are played by Jean-Pierre Cassel (as a cynical survivor who joins for the thrills and stays out of a sense of purpose), Paul Crauchet, Claude Mann, and the marvelous Christian Barbier as the unwaveringly loyal Le Bison.
Melville was a perfectionist and, at times, a tyrant. According to both Cassell and Signoret, director Melville and star Ventura didn’t speak to each other during the filming. Directions were relayed through assistants and Melville would talk about Ventura as if he wasn’t there. By the time Melville called “Action!,” Ventura was enraged – as much for Melville’s manipulations as for his slights and insults – and that rage burned through his controlled performance. Other actors he terrorized. Simone Signoret he charmed. “He could be very charming,” recalls Cassell.
The film opens with a regiment of German soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Elysees, through the symbolic heart of Paris. It creates a chilling introduction to Melville’s take on the reality of occupied France. The scene had been switched from the end to the beginning and back by Melville, who remained undecided even as finished prints hit the theaters with the sequence placed at the end of the film. Melville finally made his final decision on opening day. According to film editor Francoise Bonnot, he personally drove her to each of the six cinemas showing the film in Paris, where she had to slice out the sequence from the final reel and cement it to the front of the film.
Army of Shadows was a commercial failure, in part due to inopportune timing. The film, inaccurately branded as “Gaullist” for its celebration of Resistance heroes, was released after the events of May 1968. The spirit of the times was in no mood to celebrate Charles de Gaulle, who most film critics and almost all the young cineastes despised for betraying the idealistic uprising of students and working class unions. Melville, who once described himself as a “right wing anarchist,” was also hostile to Communists and his film ignored the immense role they played in the Resistance, which only added to the disdain. It took decades for the film to be rediscovered, reassessed and proclaimed a masterpiece.
In 2006, the newly restored film (supervised by director of photography Pierre Lhomme) made its American debut and was hailed by critics across the country as the best foreign film of the year – almost 40 years after its French debut. The high-definition digital transfer on Criterion’s two-disc DVD is also supervised by Lhomme, who discusses the restoration process in an interview featurette supplemented by illustrations. Film historian Ginette Vincendeau provides a well informed lecture of an audio track, and the set also features an excellent 30-minute retrospective documentary on the film, a 4-minute archival featurette from 1968 shot on the set of the film, a rare 1944 documentary short Le journal de la Resistance shot during the final days of Germany’s occupation of France, and other new and archival interviews.
by Sean Axmaker
Language(s):French (+English Commentary)