Jean-Pierre Melville's most personal film Army of Shadows is a bleak, brutal and sad film that tells the true story on several members of the French Resistance who secretly tried to defeat the Nazi party. Unlike Melville's other films that usually involve calm and cool anti-heroes, daring police chases and thrilling heists, the characters in Army of Shadows are desperate, hungry and scared men and women who invisibly go through the Nazi occupation of France trying to defeat this uprising evil. This is not an action film or a war film, but purely a state of mind. Army of Shadows is more about the internal psychological war within the Resistance members. Their army uses false names, they have no addresses, and they can instantly be betrayed by a traitor, by accident or by fear of torture. And yet they persist and keep fighting even in the face of despair. Melville couldn't have been a better director for the story because he was himself a member of the Resistance and could personally relate on the Resistance members internal struggles and how it feels to always live in constant fear not knowing if you'll make it through the next day. At age 20 Melville was drafted in the army in 1937, and changed his name from Grumbach to that of his favorite American writer and kept the name after the war. Melville was involved in the Resistance between 1941 and 1943, was jailed in Spain and his brother was killed trying to reach him. These men and women in the resistance except their fate and they don't want or expect any award besides the knowing they are doing the right thing. Many die under false names and many of their sacrifices will never be known; Two brothers never even discover that they are both part of the Resistance. In one of the most intense scenes of the film the Gestapo take a group of prisoners into a long indoor corridor ground where machine guns are set up. An SS officer then explains to the prisoners a sadistic game in which the prisoners are to race to the far end of the room as the machine gun firing squad fires on them. Whoever reaches the far wall will be kept alive only to be shot later with the next group of condemned men. Unfortunately when Army of Shadows was first released the timing of it couldn't have been worse. Most of the respected French critics of the influential Cahiers du cinema destroyed the film because they saw it as a glorification of General Charles de Gaulee, who was president at the time and was despised as a traitor of the May 1968 uprising. Because of that the film was shelved and ignored for almost 40 years. In the mid 90s the Cahiers du cinema published a reconsideration of Melville and his film Army of Shadows which led to a restoration of the 35mm camera negative and finally was released internationally in 2006, and is now considered not only one of Melville's greatest films but a masterpiece of French cinema.
Opening shot of the film shows a regiment of German soldiers, headed by a drum and bugle corps as they make a sharp turn onto the empty Champs-Elysee, as they march towards the camera. The film begins in October 1942 in Vichy France. Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a distinguished civil engineer and the head of a Resistance network, is handcuffed and arrested by Vichy French police inside a police van. The police are escorting him to a prison camp and on the way make a stop to pick up some black-market food from a local farmer. One of the Vichy officers tries to make small talk with Gerbier as he says to him, "You'll be OK there. It's the best camp in France. A camp for Germans. During the Phony War, we expected lots of prisoners. Naturally, we didn't take a single one. But now the camp comes in handy."
When arriving to the prison camp the warden is reading Gerbier's profile on his background and crime history. He then says, "I'm assigning you to a building intended for German officers." Gerbier then gets transported to a cell and meets other prisoners who had committed small petty crimes who are from all different races and religions including black marketeers. He meets a young man inside and Gerbier says to him, "see you comrade." The boy turns to him and asks if he is a communist. Gerbier says, "No. But I do have comrades." Gerbier later walks into the power plant where the young boy works and tells the boy that he once laid a power line in Savoy and was an electrical engineer. The boy tells him they should really talk shop sometime.
After the death of one of their prisoners and a close friend of the boys named Armel the boy asks Mr. Gerbier that he has an idea and wants to tell him that evening in private. While all the prisoners are sleeping the boy says to Gerbier, "two things make escape impossible: the barbed wire and the sentries. The ground under the wire is uneven. I can blind the sentries long enough by cutting the power." Gerbier asks him why he hasn't tried escaping before and the boy says, "I wouldn't go without Armel, and I wouldn't do it alone. You I can trust. They need you on the outside." While Gerbier and the communist boy are planning an escape, French authorities hand Gerbier over to the Nazi Gestapo, and he is transferred to its headquarters in Paris for interrogation.
While waiting in the main hall with another man, and one Nazi guard, Gerbier whispers to the man, "this is our chance. I'll get up to ask the guard something. You run through the two doors. This one here and the door to the street. Good luck." Gerbier casually gets up and walks up to the guard asking, "excuse me, sir. Could you spare a cigarette?" He quickly grabs a knife from the guard's belt and sticks him in the face with it while the other prisoner runs out through the front doors. Gerbier then makes his escape through the back doors and gets away through the streets hiding out in a barbershop asking for a shave disguising himself as a customer. The barber knows he is a fugitive and happily helps him out by giving him another coat before he leaves and making his way back to Marseille where his network is based.
Gerbier's right-hand man, Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), has identified a young agent named Paul Dounat whose real name is Vincent Henry as the informant who betrayed Gerbier to the Vichy police. With the help of Guillaume Vermersch a burly French Foreign Legion veteran whose looking for a tough mission, Gerbier and Lepercq take Dounat to a safe house to execute him. They are upset when arriving to the safe house when Guillaume tells them new neighbors just moved in next door. Guillaume says, "I came early to prepare things and discovered the neighbors. They must've moved in last night or this morning." When Guillaume says they can question the traitor in the attic Gerbier tells him they are not here for a trial. Lepercq pulls out a gun but Guillaume tells them they can't use the gun because the walls are paper-thin and the neighbors will hear everything. Lepercq suggests a knife and Gerbier tells him to grab one in the kitchen. Guillaume believes this is wrong and Gerbier says, "In any case, we're here to kill, correct?" Gerbier tells Guillaume that this is the first time for all three of them when it comes to murder. Gerbier orders the traitor to gagged and strangled. "There is a towel in the kitchen," he tells the other Lepercq. Guillaume doesn't like the idea and Gerbier says, "Stop that! Dounat has to die. That's why you're here. You wanted a tough job. You got it. Don't complain."
After the execution of Dounat Guillaume tells Gerbier he didn't think they could do it. Gerbier says, "neither did I. Always carry cyanide capsules on you. It you're caught, use them." One evening Lepercq happens upon an old friend in a bar, Jean-François Jardie , a handsome, risk-loving, former pilot. They walk outside and Lepercq asks if being a pilot is all he wants to do to the Nazis. Jean-Francois says, "as for the war, if there's no sport in it..." Lepercq interrupts and asks him, "what if I gave you some sport? You have to get up early, spend nights traveling, and never ask questions." Jean-Francois is interested and when asked about the girl waiting for him in the bar he says, "I said five minutes but she'll wait a lifetime."
On his first mission to Paris, Jean-Francois gets passed Nazi soldiers by helping a woman carry one of her small children to look like he is the father. Nazi security stop him a second time and search his briefcase but when not finding anything they let him move along. Jean-Francois finally meets Mathilde (Simone Signoret) who in the guise of a housewife, and unbeknown to her family, is one of the linchpins of Gerbier's network. "No problems?" she asks him when arriving. He says, "no problems, twice in a row." He delivers the transmitters to Mathilde as he was ordered to and when his first mission is accomplished, Jean-François pays a surprise visit to his elder brother, Luc Jardie, a renowned philosopher who lives a detached, scholarly life in his Paris mansion. (The character of Luc Jardie is partly based on the philosopher/resistance leader Jean Cavaillès.) When Jean-Francois and Luc go out for lunch, Jean-Francois can't tell his brother the secret work he does and he realizes he is closer to Mathilde who he had just met then his own brother that he has known for years. (Ironically he will never know his brother is also part of the same resistance.)
Gerbier travels to London and meets up at Madame Viellat's hideout in which he gets the orders to head to the Free French headquarters in London on a British submarine. On the submarine, Gerbier meets Luc Jardie, who is actually the Grand Patron (Big Boss), the head of all Resistance networks whose identity is a closely guarded secret, and sadly his brother will never discover. When in London, Gerbier organises additional logistical support for the resistance but is told that they can't receive any more arms because the English has little confidence in the French Resistance; but are offered transmissions and radio operators.
Later Luc Jardie is decorated by Charles de Gaulle himself and afterwards Gerbier and Luc Jardie attend the showing of Gone With the Wind. Afterwards Luc Jardie tells Gerbier, "the war will be over for the French when they can see this great movie." Suddenly that evening Gerbier takes shelter from an air raid in a night club and observes several young French soldiers dancing during the attack. However, Gerbier is forced to cut his trip short when he learns that the Gestapo has captured Lepercq. While the Gestapo hold Lepercq prisoner, the camera does a 360 turn in the room where Lepercq is being held prisoner showing the horrific beatings and torture the Gestapo have done to him.
Gerbier decides to parachute back into France and jumps out of the plane during an air raid. When in France he finds shelter in a château near Annecy in the French Alps. Meanwhile, Mathilde has taken command after Lepercq's arrest and became a first-rate organizer becoming Gerbier's assistant. She astonished Gerbier on how articulate she was on commanding and carrying out orders and is very strong-willed and patient. Learning that Lepercq is detained in a maximum-security Gestapo prison in Lyon, she devises an audacious escape plan knowing Lepercq is in a room reserved for those to be tortured. She at first wanted to breach the walls with explosives but gave up on it and tried another which revolved on various disguises. During that time Gerbier and Mathilde get very close and Gerbier asks her, "Does your husband know of your activities?" Mathilde says, "Certainly not. And neither does my child." She shows a picture of her daughter to Gerbier and Gerbier says, "Don't carry it on you." The both of them know that the Gestapo will torture Lepercq and not let him commit suicide. Mathilde tells Gerbier that they have to get into Gestapo HQ and rescue him.
Jean-François, who has been sitting silently through the discussion of the plan, makes his decision. He writes a letter of resignation to Gerbier and mails an anonymous letter to the Gestapo to incriminate himself. His gamble is successful: after a brutal interrogation, he is placed in the same cell as Lepercq to comfort him. Lepercq has been repeatedly tortured and lies on his bunk barely alive. Dressed as a German military nurse, and accompanied by Le Masque and Le Bison wearing German uniforms, Mathilde arrives at the gate of the Lyon prison in a stolen German ambulance with a forged order for Lepercq's transfer to Gestapo headquarters of Obersturmfuher Bomelburg. The guards order the three of them to step out of the ambulance as the guards search it, before the guards go retrieve Lepercq. Also during the wait, Mathilde sees a picture of Gerbier on a wanted poster in the Lyon main hall.
The plan suddenly seems to backfire when the prison doctor, though duped by the order, examines the dying Lepercq in his cell and pronounces him unfit for transport. He tells Mathilde, "It's impossible. I can't let you transport a dying man. I'm sorry." Mathilde had not anticipated that contingency and can only leave the prison empty-handed.
Jean-François, seeing that any chance of escape is now lost, tells Lepercq that he has several cyanide pills and offers him one (hiding from him the fact that he actually has only one pill) to rid him of his pain; knowing they both will die. On the run again after the Gestapo has discovered his Annecy hideout, Gerbier meets Mathilde in a Lyon restaurant for debriefing. Mathilde urges him to escape to London in view of the mounting danger; and lay low since she has seen his face on a wanted poster on the wall of the Lyon prison. He says he can't because no one can replace his position now. She tells him, "and if you're caught? Then we'd have to replace you." Mathilde departs, and suddenly an unexpected Vichy police raid of the restaurant over food rationing violations results in the capture of Gerbier.
Gerbier is handed over to the Germans and while in prison with several cellmates he hands them over the last of his cigarettes. After a few days in prison the Gestapo transport the prisoners and take them to a firing range. During his last walk towards the firing range in what he believes will be his end, Gerbier thinks back to all the moments that he had done during his time with the resistance. Gerbier thinks to himself, "I am going to die...and I'm not afraid...It is because I'm too limited, too much of an animal to believe it. But if I don't believe it until the last possible moment, until the ultimate limit, I shall never die. What a discovery!"
In one of the most intense scenes of the film the Gestapo take Gerbier and his cellmates into the room of the firing range. When they walk into the room, Gerbier looks over and sees a group of SS men with a machine gun. An SS officer then explains to the prisoners a sadistic game in which the prisoners are to race to the far end of the room as a machine gun firing squad fires on them. The Gestapo says to them, "you will turn your backs to the machine guns and face the far wall. You will run as fast as you can. We will not open fire at once. We will give you a chance. Whoever reaches the far wall will be shot later with the next group of condemn men." As the shooting starts, Gerbier at first will not move with the other prisoners but is forced to.
When running down to the far wall his team, who have been lying in wait on the roof of the corridor, throw smoke bombs into the line of fire to block the Germans' view, then throw a rope down to Gerbier who just narrowly escapes. Le Bison and Mathilde gets Gerbier safely in the car and they all take off with Le Bison saying, "it had to be timed perfectly. Thank Mathilde for that." Gerbier says to himself, "and what if I hadn't run?" Le Bison asks Gerbier if something is wrong and if he is thinking about the others. Gerbier tells him, "no, about the officer who was so sure I'd run too, like a scard rabbit." Mathilde sees the fear in Gerbier and takes Gerbier's hand to console him. The group then switches vehicles and drives Gerbier to an abandoned farmhouse deep in the countryside, where he is to wait for the situation to cool down.
After one month of solitude, and not seeing or hearing from many of his peers Gerbier starts to believe he's not valuable to the groups operations anymore. His only link to the outside world are five books that Luc Jardie wrote before the war. Then suddenly in the middle of the night Gerbier receives an unexpected visit from Luc Jardie who has come to seek his advice following the arrest of Mathilde.
He tells him, "Mathilde was arrested on the 27th. She wasn't hurt. She found a way to let us know. The Gestapo discovered her real identity and her families address. She was carrying her daughter's photo on her. You can guess the rest. Mathilde's only slip-up. The Germans sensed it was that remarkable woman's weak point." Gerbier says, "The photo. How could she have kept it? I warned her?" Luc Jardie says, "Mathilde sent us an SOS. They've given her a choice: Either she names all the agents she knows in our network or her daughter is sent to a Polish whorehouse for soldiers from the Eastern Front. Those are the givens of the problem. We must find a solution. She can neither escape nor kill herself. The Gestapo is confident. The daughter will answer for everything."
The Grand Patron has barely finished explaining the situation when Le Masque and Le Bison arrive. Jardie, wanting his presence to remain secret, hides in the back room while the two men hand over a coded status report to Gerbier telling that Mathilde has been released the day before and that two Resistance men have been picked up the same afternoon. Gerbier orders Mathilde's immediate execution, but Le Bison refuses to carry out the order and swears to prevent Gerbier from killing her. Le Bison says, "I won't lay a finger on Madame Mathilde. I worked for her. She saved my skin. I watched her at Gestapo HQ. She's a great woman! Over my dead body! Never!" Gerbier says that she has to die and she will and if Le Bison won't do it he can get someone else that will. Le Bison gets angry and says, "in the shooting range, you could've run like mad, but she saved your life with those smoke grenades. You mustn't do it. Let her sell us all out if she wants. She protected me. She protected you. Now it's her daughter. We can't judge her."
As a fight and potential murder is about to break out between Le Bison and Gerbier, Jardie emerges from the back room and defuses the tension. He tells Le Bison, "She is a marvelous woman but were going to kill her because she's begging us to." He convinces Le Bison that the only reason Mathilde acted the way she did — betraying only minor agents, and convincing the Gestapo to release her under the pretext of leading them to her network — was to give the Resistance a window of opportunity to kill her, thereby sparing the network and her daughter. Le Bison reluctantly agrees to take part in the operation because he wants to be present and for her to see him as a final homage to Mathilde.
When Le Bison and Le Masque leave Gerbier asks Jardie if what he claims about Mathilde is true and Jardie says, "How should I know? My theory might be correct. Or she wanted to see her daughter again making it harder for her to die. That's what I want to find out. I have to be with you for the hardest part." Gerbier says, "you in a car full of killers. Nothing's sacred anymore."
In the tragic climax of the film, Mathilde is walking the streets of Paris when Jardie and his men pull up next to her in a stolen Wehrmacht car. Seeing them, Mathilde freezes and keeps her eyes locked into Jardie's while Le Bison pulls out a pistol and shoots her twice, after which the car speeds away.
This film is a sad and tragic film and after the murder of Madame Mathilde; the film shows the unfortunate endings of each member of what was left of the resistance.
"Le Masque, had just enough time to swallow his cyanide capsule on November 8, 1943.
Guillume Vermersch alias Le Bison, was decapitated by ax in a German prison camp on December 16, 1943.
Luc Jardie died under torture on Janurary 22, 1944, after revealing one name: his own.
And on February 13, 1944, Philippe Gerbier decided this time....he wouldn't run..."
Elegant, brutal, anxiety-provoking, and overwhelmingly sad, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 Army of Shadows was released theatrically for the first time in the United States in 2006, to nearly universal critical acclaim. From the Village Voice’s J.?Hoberman (“emerges from the mists of time . . . as a career-capping epic tragedy”) to the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane (“lovers of cinema should reach for their fedoras, turn up the collars of their coats, and sneak to this picture through a mist of rain”) to Newsweek’s David Ansen (“the best foreign film of the year”), critics from across the spectrum, who almost never agreed, rallied around Melville’s neglected masterpiece. Too bad the director, who died in 1973, at age fifty-five, was not around to experience the tide turn for his most personal film.
The timing of Army of Shadows’s initial French release, in the fall of 1969, could not have been worse. Most serious French critics, including those of the influential Cahiers du cinéma, savaged the film for what they saw as its glorification of General Charles de Gaulle, who, then president, was despised as the betrayer of the May 1968 student uprising. De Gaulle, in fact, is a marginal figure in this French Resistance saga, and Melville depicts him with an irony that makes it clear his heroism would not outlive the extreme circumstances in which the war had placed him. Given the enormous sway Cahiers du cinéma held over American art-film programmers and distributors during the heyday of the French New Wave, it’s not surprising that the film was ignored here for so long. In the midnineties, however, Cahiers du cinéma published a reconsideration of Melville, and particularly of Army of Shadows, which led to a restoration of the original 35 mm camera negative by StudioCanal and a rapturously received Rialto Pictures release in the United States.
Army of Shadows was the third and final film in which Melville dealt directly with the German occupation of France—Le silence de la mer (1949), his first feature, and Léon Morin, prêtre (1961) were also set during that time—and his only film devoted to the Resistance. But it was made in the middle of his stunning late run of gangster films, preceded by Le deuxième souffle (1966) and Le samouraï (1967) and followed by Le cercle rouge (1970) and Un flic (1972), and it has more in common with them, formally, narratively, and philosophically, than with the earlier war films. Even if you do not conclude, as so many now do, that Army of Shadows is Melville’s most significant film—his signature work—and certainly one of the greatest films of the sixties, it will at least change the ways in which you make meaning of his surrounding work.
The film is adapted from Joseph Kessel’s Army of Shadows, an account of the author’s experience in the French Resistance, published in London in 1943. Born in Argentina, to a Lithuanian Jewish family, and educated in France, Kessel was a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter (he also famously wrote the source novel for Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour), and Army of Shadows reflected this multiple training. “Everything had to be accurate, and at the same time, nothing must be recognizable,” Kessel wrote in his preface. In other words, fiction, as a protective strategy, was applied to a work of reportage. In Rui Nogueira’s Melville on Melville, the director says that he read Kessel’s book when he, too, was in London in 1943, and immediately wanted to film it. He also seems to have taken Kessel’s method as the guiding principle for his entire oeuvre, explaining to Nogueira, in a different context: “What people often assume to be imagination in my films is really memory, things I have noticed walking down the street or being with people—transposed, of course, because I have a horror of showing things I have actually experienced.” The filmmaker whose subject was underground man assumed as a creative artist the strategies of secrecy, subterfuge, and masquerade that were life and death matters for his characters, whether gangsters or résistants. The meshing of this method of constructing story and identity in film (and perhaps in life as well) with the behavior of characters as seemingly different from each other as Gerbier in Army of Shadows and Corey in Le cercle rouge largely accounts for the surprising emotional resonance and profound sense of unease across all of Melville’s films, but most powerfully in Army of Shadows and the late gangster cycle—works that are as precise, distanced, and abstract as a game of chess.
It should go without saying that the experience of World War II was definitive for Melville’s generation. Melville was drafted into the army in 1937, at age twenty. Born to a Jewish family, he changed his name from Grumbach to that of his favorite American writer, and since it was as Melville that he received his military decoration, he kept the name after the war, or so he explained to Nogueira. According to Ginette Vincendeau, whose Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris is one of only two extended works on Melville in English (along with Nogueira’s now out-of-print book-length interview), Melville was involved in the Resistance, probably between 1941 and 1943. He was jailed in Spain; his brother was killed, perhaps trying to reach him. He joined the Free French in North Africa in 1943, and took part in the Italian and French liberation campaigns in 1944. Although his service with the Free French has never been disputed, some, including Volker Schlöndorff, at one time Melville’s assistant director, have been skeptical about his connection to the Resistance.
Notwithstanding what Vincendeau refers to as “contradictory testimony” around Melville’s Resistance activities, Army of Shadows has the quality of lived experience like no other film in the director’s oeuvre. By comparison, even the most dazzling and affecting of the gangster films—Le doulos (1962), Le cercle rouge, Le samouraï—seem like game playing. They transcend genre but not their own fetishistic defenses. (This criticism is, of course, relative. One has only to compare Melville’s genre excursions to Quentin Tarantino’s to understand the gravity of Melville’s project.) And while Melville told Nogueira that the attack on Army of Shadows by some French critics for presenting the Resistance fighters as if they were characters in a gangster film was “absurd,” he himself made another kind of connection: “Tragedy is the immediacy of death that you get in the underworld or in a particular time such as war. The characters from Army of Shadows are tragic characters. You know that from the very beginning.” Those who come to the film with expectations of romantic heroes and daring action sequences that culminate in uplifting endings, that is, will be bewildered and disappointed by Melville’s rigorous focus on process rather than action, and by the pessimism that tempers his characters as individuals and comrades in arms.
Still, despite this personal stamp, with regard to incidents, characters, dialogue, and the distribution of interior monologues, Melville’s film is a remarkably faithful, albeit condensed, adaptation of Kessel’s book. But unlike Kessel, who was writing in London at a moment when the war suddenly seemed winnable, and therefore gave his story an open, and even guardedly optimistic, ending, Melville, looking back from a more sober position more than twenty-five years later—understanding that most of the Resistance fighters on whom he based his characters actually died not knowing that their actions contributed to their side’s winning the war—doesn’t allow anyone to get out alive. The opening and closing of the film are devastating. Indeed, for a French audience in 1969, the first shot must have had the shock effect that Buñuel and Salvador Dalí aimed for when they sliced through an eye at the beginning of Un chien andalou: a regiment of German soldiers, headed by a drum and bugle corps, goosesteps across the Arc de Triomphe and makes a sharp turn onto the empty Champs-Élysées, marching straight toward the camera, which holds its position, as if frozen by the sight. It is, however, the shot itself that freezes, as the first row of soldiers comes abreast of the lens, and the nightmare image hangs over the film, just as the occupation must have hung like an all-enveloping poison cloud over France.
The narrative proper begins with Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a civil engineer and the chief of a small cell of Resistance fighters, handcuffed inside a police van, being escorted to a prison camp by two Vichy cops, who make a pit stop along the way to pick up some black-market food from a local farmer. (It’s the first of many quick introjections of local color that reveal how the French survived the occupation, in this case by doing favors for Vichy.) The sky is overcast, rain slants down on the yellowed fields; on the soundtrack, cawing crows mix with howling wind, the van’s ancient, chugging motor, and the film’s main music theme, its descending minor melody suggesting the fate motif from Georges Bizet’s Carmen. One of the cops tries to make small talk with Gerbier, whose manner and brief responses suggest not only his intelligence but also his ironic strategy of tempering rage and despair with courtesy, a strategy so engrained that it seems the defining element of his character. Gerbier is the governing consciousness of Kessel’s book, in which the longest chapter is titled “The Diary of Philippe Gerbier,” although Kessel distributes the first-person voice among several other characters as well. Melville follows Kessel’s lead in this, but the Gerbier of the film is a more complicated and heartbreaking character, thanks to Ventura’s remarkably subtle, unsentimental, concentrated performance. Always a powerfully physical presence, with a solid yet agile body and a blocklike head that is instantly recognizable, Ventura here filters everything—physical action/reaction and sensory perceptions—through a mind that never stops working. How Ventura conveys Gerbier’s intensity of mind and will is, like all great acting, mysterious. It’s not a matter just of the alertness of his gaze or the shifting rhythms of his speech or the timbre of his voice (Melville remarked that no one taught Ventura how to say lines but he said them more convincingly than anyone else) but of the way his intelligence seems to infuse every cell of his body. One of Melville’s strengths is his casting and directing of actors, but no other performance in his films, including the wonderful ones here by Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, and Paul Crauchet, is as rich as, or has the tragic stature of, Ventura’s. (Melville and Ventura were on such bad terms that, according to Signoret, they never spoke to each other during the shoot.)
Army of Shadows follows Gerbier and the members of his small cell (it is 1943, before the rise of the maquis guerrilla bands, and the number of active Resistance fighters is only in the hundreds) as they are arrested, tortured, imprisoned, find a way to escape or to engineer the escape of others, and are eventually murdered, in some cases by the Nazis, in others by their own comrades, who have judged them a danger to security. Melville is unsparing in his depiction of killing and dying and the desperate effort to survive. Early in the film, Gerbier escapes from Nazi headquarters by stabbing one of the guards. Gerbier moves so efficiently (and the camera angle changes so quickly) that we can’t quite grasp what’s happening until the guard falls backward across Gerbier’s arm and we see the knife lodged in his arched throat. Two sequences later, Gerbier and three members of his cell, Félix (Crauchet), Le Masque (Claude Mann), and Le Bison (Christian Barbier)—the names may sound like they belong to gangsters, but they are all taken from Kessel’s book—execute a young man who worked with them and betrayed them to the Germans. Unlike the compression of time in the killing of the guard, this execution is agonizingly extended, with the group debating the method to be used in front of their whimpering victim. No one wants to kill him, and yet they must if they are to survive. Afterward, as they prepare to leave, we hear the same dark musical fragment that plays over the scene where Gerbier is introduced. With this killing, each of the résistants knows he has sealed his fate. Even if they survive the occupation, they will have to live with their own guilt and their compromised humanity.
If Army of Shadows is a tragedy rather than a melodrama—and I believe it is—this is its first act. The narrative will come full circle, and the theme music will be heard again, in the last sequence, when once more Gerbier, this time with his commander, Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse)—the character partly modeled on the legendary Resistance hero Jean Moulin—decides it is necessary to kill one of their group. But now it is one of the most valued members. After the damning deed is done, Melville shows us, one by one, the agonized faces of those remaining and, through the windshield of their car, the Arc de Triomphe. A second later, a series of title cards briefly describe how each of them was executed by the Germans. One expects that an image or two from a film as powerful as this one will stick in one’s memory, but in the months since I’ve seen Army of Shadows, it’s these words, which originate not with Kessel but with Melville, that will not leave my mind. All the bleak beauty of the film’s drained color palette and the nearly impenetrable blacks, which are a tribute to the title, lead to this series of filmic tombstones—white letters on black grounds.
In Kessel’s book, Gerbier, who believes he’s going to be killed by a firing squad, thinks, “I am going to die . . . and I’m not afraid . . . It is because I’m too limited, too much of an animal to believe it. But if I don’t believe it until the last possible moment, until the ultimate limit, I shall never die. What a discovery!” Melville uses the entire text as a voice-over, one of many spoken by Gerbier and other characters. As much as Kessel’s concept of fiction as disguise, this idea affects the shape of Army of Shadows and the late gangster films that bracket it. The extreme elasticity of subjective time, particularly in the face of death—of subjectivity defined by that elasticity rather than by conventional point-of-view shots—is what makes Melville’s films, and Army of Shadows in particular, not merely exquisite abstractions or exercises in style but graphs of human consciousness grappling with mortality.
The hideous mess in Iraq, the sense that we are enmeshed in a situation in the Middle East where all options are bad, may partly account for the embrace in 2006 of Melville’s depiction of the tragedy within even the “good” war. In their pessimism about the inevitability of war and its cost in individual lives, Clint Eastwood’s admirable and moving World War II films Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, released late in the same year, have something in common with Army of Shadows. All three films show that in the worst of circumstances, human beings can act with courage and honor, but that there is a larger tragedy in the fact that war is the realm in which such heroism comes into being.
The bleak beauty of Melville's films are his drained color palette and the focus on mostly greys and dark shadows. Most of the suspense and action from Melville's films come from the facial expressions of the characters and what is happening on the screen, especially the several scenes that involve Gerbier. The one shot that stands out is when Gerbier steps into the shooting range room as the camera focuses on Gerbier's intensity on the machine gun and the wall at the far end of the room. Melville was originally ignored but now is being recognized as one of the greatest directors and the early beginner of the French New Wave; even before Godard and Truffaut. The way he filmed which was using actual locations, dolly shots with a camera mounted on a bicycle, unknown actors and unrehearsed street scenes and everyday incidents instead of heightened melodrama was not only groundbreaking but influential.
Army of Shadows was the third and final film Melville made that directly involved the German occupation of France, but it was also made during the middle of his gangster pictures as well and if looking closely Army of Shadows blends a little of both of those themes. The film was adapted by Joseph Kessel's book Army of Shadows which was an account of the author's experience in the French Resistance which was published in London in 1943. At age 20 Melville was drafted in the army in 1937, and changed his name from Grumbach to that of his favorite American writer and kept the name after the war. Melville was involved in the Resistance between 1941 and 1943, was jailed in Spain and his brother was killed trying to reach him. He then joined the Free French in North Africa in 1943 and took part in the Italian and French liberation campaigns in 1944. Even though service with the Free French has never been disputed some have been skeptical on Melville's connection to the Resistance.
Melville's film Army of Shadows was very faithful to the novel and Melville realized that many of the Resistance fighters who he based his characters on in the film have died probably not knowing their actions contributed to their side winning the war. Gerbier is the main character in Army of Shadows and even though you hear other character's first person voice over during the story it usually is from Gerbier. The actor Lino Ventura who plays Gerbier creates a remarkable and subtle character who is intelligent, mysterious, calm, and full of intensity. Melville once said that no one taught Ventura how to say lines, but he said them more convincingly than anyone else.
Even though this is more of a tragic drama then an action film there are three key action moments that create great intensity. The first one is when Gerbier escapes from Nazi headquarters by quickly killing one of the guards by stabbing him in the neck with a knife. The shot that is used during that violent moment doesn't have the audience clearly see what is happening until the soldier drops to the floor. The second scene is when Le Masque, Le Bison and Gerbier know they have to execute a man who worked and betrayed them to the Nazis. This scene is not quick and the three men are hesitant on the murder since this is all their first time doing an execution. They then figure out the simplest and quietest way in doing it so they don't alert the neighbors next door, and after they execute the traitor by strangling him, all three of them are filled with guilt and sadness because that act of murder questions their humanity. The third action scene involves Gerbier and his cellmates when they are brought to a firing range. An SS officer explains to them a sadistic game where the prisoners are to race to the far end of the room while a machine gun firing squad fires on them. During the shooting, Gerbier luckily escapes with the help of his comrades who are waiting on the roof of the corridor. When asked about Army of Shadows in an interview with Rui Nogueira in 1971 Melville said, "I had no intention of making a film about the Resistance. So with one exception -- the German occupation -- I excluded all realism. In this film for the first time, I show things that I have seen that I have experienced." Even though Gerbier was the main character in the story, I found the character of Madame Mathilde much more interesting. The resistance included many women and it was safer for women to carry messages, radio transmissions and even weapons through security because they are looked upon as less of a threat. Mathilde was a loyal, courageous and highly intelligent woman who kept her whole life of being within the resistance secret from her husband and daughter and yet did it because she believed in what she was fighting for. She gathered information and intelligence and even helped smuggle Allied airmen out of France. In many ways I believe Mathilde is the heart of the resistance and the heart of the story. And yet like every warm-blooded human she had a flaw and in her case it was her family. Even though she was told to not carry a picture of her daughter with her, she could not do it because I believe when you are living two different lives, that picture was the only reality she had that separated her family and her duty. You cannot blame her for revealing names after the Gestapo threatened the life of her daughter and in a lot of ways her murder symbolized the death of the resistance. I find it interesting that Melville's earlier work focused on gangsters and killers because even though the Resistance in Army of Shadows are trying to fight a great evil, they eventually become cold-hearted gangsters as well. They have to eliminate the people who betray them and murder those who could be a threat to their organization which is in many ways very similar to criminal organizations. This was considered Melville's favorite and most personal film and I completely agree. I believe Army of Shadows is his masterpiece and it's a shame that he died in 1973 at age 55 and did not experience how the reactions on his most personal film have changed overtime. The film when finally released in the US in 2006 was hailed as a masterpiece and the best film of 2006 even though it originally was made in 1969. The Village Voice's J. Hoberman said, "emerges from the mists of time...as a career capping epic tragedy." Newsweek's David Ansen said, "the best foreign film of the year" and film critic Roger Ebert added it to his 'Great Movies' list stating, "Rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism."