France, 1942, under German occupation. Philippe Gerbier, a civil engineer, is a French Resistance commandant. Denounced by a French collaborator, he is interned in a concentration camp. He manages to escape, and rejoins his network in Marseille, where he has the traitor executed. This movie reveals rigorously and austerely what life was like in the French Resistance: the solitude and fear of its members; their relationships with one another; the constant threat of arrest by the Gestapo; the Resistance command structure and the way its orders were carried out. Head writer Joseph Kessel and co-writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville were both veterans of the "Shadow Army".Written by
The Citroën car which the Resistance uses to pick up the traitor has large cylinders attached to the roof. This was a real conversion, one of a number made during the War because of the critical shortage of petrol (aka gasoline) for vehicles. This particular vehicle has been modified to run on natural gas, but the French also produced coal-burning and even wood-burning models. See more »
The shot of the British Whitley bomber under fire from German flak just doesn't work. An unloaded Whitley, especially one on a covert mission behind enemy lines where speed is essential, could manage about 250 miles an hour. This means that during the 1.5 second shot we see the plane should have travelled about 200 yards, which would leave the flak bursts far behind. Instead they appear above and below the aircraft and then fade away without actually moving anywhere. This is because the filmmakers used a model aircraft for the shot, but neglected to use a fan to blow the air past it for added realism. See more »
This is a tough, somber film that captures the absurdities involved in war, and, ultimately, in life. The French Resistance "heroes" in the story are never shown conducting sabotage or planned attacks against the Germans, as one would get in a traditional World War II movie. Instead, we follow their claustrophobic and paranoid lives as they move from one hiding place to another (or one prison to another), constantly hounded by those in power, haunted by their own actions and the inability to communicate with those dear to them. Melville shows us their doubts and questions as they deal with betrayal, cowardice, and the murky ethics of killing their own to preserve the larger good.
Every episode in the film seems to lead to a darkly ironic conclusion, and the meaninglessness of their efforts becomes almost overwhelming, except that, somehow, these ordinary people continue to offer resistance in the face of death, so that their heroism lies not in the ability to stop the Germans but in taking action at all while facing the abyss.
While the acting is excellent all around, Lino Ventura's performance as Gerbier deserves special attention. It's hard to imagine any other actor bearing the tremendous weight of this film as well as he does. Gabin, at an earlier age, might have had the physical and emotional strength, but I'm not sure he would've been capable of Ventura's unassuming portrayal, which is so necessary for his character. The "shadows" at the core of this tale are seriously dark, and Ventura's Gerbier is strong enough to face them, yet modest enough to realize he can't conquer them on his own. The only way the Resistance makes sense by the end of this film, is in the collective effort of its members. Similarly, each of us, individually, cannot conquer death, but we as a group of human beings can continue to live on. _L'Armée des ombres_ ultimately moves beyond a story of the French Resistance in World War II and serves as a powerful existentialist epic, with Ventura's performance responsible for much of the film's dignity and humanity.
As with _Léon Morin, prêtre_ (1961), another story set during the war, Melville seems more emotionally present in _L'Armée des ombres_ than he does in his policiers or noir pieces, and after seeing the film, his overall body of work suddenly seems much heftier. While the movie isn't as visually daring of some of his other works, it has a dark beauty all its own, and his pacing, editing, shot selection, and use of sound show him in great artistic control. Forty-eight hours after seeing it, I still find myself caught in its world.
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