Army of Shadows

June, 2006, Thriller

Directed by:Jean-Pierre Melville

Starring:Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, and Jean-Pierre Cassel


It would make an incredibly unrealistic storyline, even for the movies, but it happens to be true; a boy named Angiolino is born in Parma Italy right before the Roaring Twenties, moves with his family to Paris where he grows up, drops out of school, (at age 8) and goes on to become the professional wrestling champion of Europe in 1950. After a serious injury in the ring shortly thereafter, he drifts, without professional training, into the French film industry to portray rough-neck thugs. He then becomes one of that country's most popular stars, appearing in over 75 films in an acting career that wasn't launched until he was 35. His name? Lino Ventura, the lead in this brilliant drama based on a novel by Joseph Kessel that details the exploits of a tight-knit group of French resistance fighters following the Nazi invasion of France in WW II. 

Directed by the acclaimed Jean-Pierre Melville, (grandmaster of the French gangster genre in the '50's and '60's and godfather to France's New Wave directors) Army of Shadows has everything the current crop of mega-expensive thrillers lacks; white-knuckle tension amidst scenes of furious action, painfully credible characters brought to life by a team of first-rate actors and above all a cinematic style that rejects stylized gimmickry relying instead on the director's genius for composing lengthy, sweeping shots that pull the audience right into the middle of his story. It's flat out the best thriller you'll see all year, but you may have to find it on DVD; this gem is already 37 years old and is just now receiving it's American premiere, (in a completely restored 35 mm print) at The Film Forum in New York City. If there's an art house or film festival in your area, harangue them into screening it.

Ventura plays Phillipe Gerbier, a civil engineer by training but also a high-ranking member of The Maquis, the name given to French underground efforts during the Occupation. Gerbier runs a small group of like-minded compatriots whose missions include intelligence gathering, sabotage and rescuing downed airman for transport back to England. History records that it was gritty, dangerous work that often ended in capture, torture and death. Army of Shadows paints this picture so precisely its often tiny, mundane acts of defiance culminate in a portrait of heroism set against a backdrop of depressingly long odds. There are no Hollywood heroes here, just ordinary men and women who risk everything to protect, as best they can, the remnants of their battered and abused country. From the last months of 1942 until the late winter of 1944, Gerbier and his half-dozen comrades conduct their clandestine operations, frustrated by a lack of suitable equipment, the smothering presence of the German Army and the fear of betrayal by those who have been secretly co-opted by the enemy. It's a world where caution quickly morphs into paranoia, trust is corroded by suspicion and a cyanide/suicide capsule is one's most constant companion. That Melville can convey this claustrophobic environment even as his camera seduces with its spacious shots of the French countryside, quiet villages and grand urban architecture is a tribute to his ability to marry tightly constrained human interactions within his camera's celluloid canvas; prison cells, safe houses and hideouts are always presented after the audience has first been introduced to the beauty of the exteriors which contain these dark recesses, as if to suggest that the evil men do flows from dank deposits of pestilence residing deep inside their psyches. 

Violence is ever present in Army but rarely shown; the director relies on his own pared-back dialogue and the facial expressions of this cast, (which includes such lummineraries as Simone Signoret and Jean-Pierre Cassel) to convey the cumulative pressure that each member of the team has to deal with. The ensemble cast is perfect, even in its smallest contributions; when Gerbier ducks into a barber shop just after escaping from a police interrogation, the audience isn't sure whether the shave he asks for, (beneath a portrait of General Petain, the head of the collaborating French government in Vichy) will result in a few more minutes of precious freedom, a speedy return to the authorities or a slit throat. The wonderful Serge Reggaini plays the barber (with an off-hand, chilling Gallic indifference anyone who's ever visited France will instantly recognize) and the outcome of his short scene makes your skin crawl with anxiety. It's a perfect little bit of performance in a series of them throughout the nearly 2 and 1/2 hours of this amazing movie.

Like his contemporary Yves Montand, Ventura has the capacity to convey a rich combination of intelligence, unassuming masculinity and understated tenderness. In their best performances, both actors personify characters that act out of deeply held personal values; nowhere is that skill more evident than in Ventura's depiction of Gerbier. Here is a man who acts, often with great violence, in ways that somehow manage to legitimize reprehensible human behavior because of the underlying conditions; situation ethics have never had such a seductive advocate. That an actor with no formal education can act like someone who possesses a professional degree is one thing; that he can do so while engaging in espionage without losing either his quiet civility or essential attractiveness is something else altogether. 

Cinematographers Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz repeatedly fill the screen with spacious shots that provide the perfect setting for action that's initiated only in one small part of the scene; the expansive yard of a prison camp late at night is shown from such a distance that it's barely recognizable until the headlights of an approaching truck appear on the right side of the screen as the vehicle rolls up to the camp's entrance; a lush public park is presented in long shot only to be interrupted by two characters who stroll on screen in the lower left hand corner of this peaceful tableau to discuss the details of a particularly difficult jail break. 

Melville is known for extended tracking shots which wordlessly express his point of view as they move through carefully crafted landscapes; a man frantically runs from the police through the streets of a darkened town, an armored car sloshes along muddy roads during a rainstorm in the bucolic French countryside, its destination a dreary prison camp, German troops sinuously march around the Arch de Triomphe to the Teutonic sounds of a brass band; Army is well underway way before the director's aim becomes fully apparent; this group of brave citizen soldiers behave like lab rats in a maze, frantically scrambling to escape from one blind alley only to be shunted by the circumstances of their mission into another. But their inability to accomplish everything they set out to do doesn't prevent them from persistently inflicting considerable damage on their better equipped and more numerous opponents, something that should give contemporary U.S. audiences pause given our present occupation of Iraq.

Terse dialogue, brilliant camerawork and deeply authentic performances; Army of Shadows has them all and delivers the goods with tough-minded sympathy for its characters, perhaps because the director's real name was Jean Pierre Grumbach. Born into an Alsatian Jewish family, he was a member of the Resistance himself until fleeing to England to join the Free French Forces before returning to his native country to participate in its liberation after the Allied invasion in June, 1944. If this film is a tribute to his fallen countrymen, it's a clear-headed and painfully honest one.

 Melville has been long recognized as one of France's very best film directors; see this one and you'll know why. 

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