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
In the London WWII sequence, we see double yellow lines on the road. These were only introduced in the UK in 1956 and didn't become common until the 1960s. Same goes for a couple of the street signs, of a style not known before the 1960s. See more »
aside from his later crime films, this is Melville at his best, and usual challenging self
Jean Pierre Melville, writer/director of Army of Shadows, has said in interviews that the book of which he based his movie from is considered THE book on the French resistance in the second world war. While I can only speculate as to this film being THE film of its category, as I've yet to see other films on the resistance, it sets quite a high standard for painting a very calculated, perfectly cool (or cold on your POV) piece of film-making on the subject.
It's basically as if Melville, having lived through the period- this being perhaps an even more personal film than his other crime films- still takes on some of the true knacks of what he does in the rest of his oeuvre. Taking characters who go by codes of loyalty, professional as can be, and in a true underground in society. However this time their opponent being the Germans instead of the police the stakes are raised. Even as a couple of parts in the middle seem to shake with the deliberate pace Melville sets a couple of times, the main core of the story and the characters is remarkable, and honest in a dark, bleak way.
Lino Ventura is at his best as Gerbier, a main man in the French resistance movement, who gets more involved in the proceedings following a brief prison-camp stint (the escape from which is one of the most daring in any film). The film is fairly episodic, however encompassing a group of the resistance people, including Mathilde (Simon Signet, very good as always), Le Masque (Claude Mann), and Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel, at a peak as well in his own way).
Some of their operations are simple, like retrieving weapons or finding more support through certain channels. Though here and there some payback is in due to the traitors. This becomes a higher issue as the film rolls into its final act, as alliances come into question, and the real ties of humanity together are tested in the midst of the German occupation.
As usual with Melville all of this is told, in its own way, fairly simply- almost clinically- by Melville's camera. There are some zooms here and there, some very intense camera positions (though not awkwardly), and exciting when need be. At the same time, there are some scenes like a short scene on a beach (all blue) or a few others at night or in different lighting modes that are the best Melville's done in the midst of a color scheme used perfectly to correspond with the mood; it works just as well if not better than how he uses it for his crime films.
But one of the pleasures of seeing a film like this by a real kind of maverick of European cinema is seeing how much room he gives for his actors. These are not performances that become over-sensational in the slightest. On the contrary, what adds sometimes to the tension in some of the scenes, or the outright tragedy, is how the actors just play as they do professional-wise, sometimes with what's not said meaning more (and how the Melville gets these quiet moments is fantastic). Featuring a superlative musical accompaniment by Eric De Marsan, this is one of the best directed anti-war films ever made.
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