Adapting Joseph Kessel’s novel about the French Resistance, writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville drew on his own experiences as an operative in the Resistance, the titular Army of Shadows, to make his most haunting masterpiece. Deliberately paced, unsentimental, and informed by a moral rigorousness and fatalism that bears echoes of Robert Bresson, Army of Shadows is not so much an espionage thriller as a meditation on the realities of life as an underground resistor, rife with betrayal, hopelessness, boredom, the constant imminence of death, and the struggle to keep the faith. In that sense, the movie feels like a catharsis for Melville and his big flip-off to the Hollywood tradition of glorified, gung-ho war movies.
Melville’s central figure is Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a civil engineer turned leader of the French Resistance during the height of the Nazi occupation, as he goes about the business of directing the underground. Melville’s script isn’t structured like conventional thrillers, with their dramatic arcs, action setpieces, and calibrated suspense. Rather, it’s a construction of evenly paced sequences in which every situation — whether it involves Gerbier staging a breakout from a Nazi detention facility or pacing a safe-house, lonely, bored and anxious — is treated with a matter-of-fact inevitability. For Gerbier (and Melville, by extension), slashing an officer’s throat or strangling an informant is all in a day’s work, as necessary and as routine as sharing cigarettes with your fellow inmates, planning an operation with your comrades, or reading a book. There are few that Gerbier can trust; they go by monikers like Le Bison (Christian Barbier) and Le Masque (Claude Mann), both befitting their physical appearance, alongside the headstrong, no-nonsense Mathilde (Simone Signoret), as tough and unflappable as any of her male counterparts. As loyal as they may be, though, no one can be taken for granted and each is expendable for the greater good of the Resistance: This is the underlying directive of the movie, and of Gerbier’s daily existence. Melville follows Gerbier and his band of outsiders through a few treacherous months in 1942, and, as we watch, we grow to admire him, Mathilde, Le Bison, Le Masque for their competence, steadiness of nerve, but, mostly, their belief in a movement that could collapse under the rising tide of Nazism at any moment, taking their lives with it.
Lino Ventura plays Gerbier with a memorably dapper, undaunted air. He’s the moral and temperamental center of Army of Shadows, as smooth and cool as the movie itself. Eric Demarsan’s brooding score and sharply luminous cinematography by Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz accompany Melville’s ensemble of pitch-perfect performances. Indeed, Army of Shadows is one of those blessed pictures in which all elements, from its writing through to its editing, coalesce into a work of profound philosophical and emotional unity, owing largely to Melville’s strengths as a storyteller, seen here at the peak of their powers.
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier