Sunday, 26 August 2007
ARMY OF SHADOWS
Army of Shadows (1969) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring: Lino Ventura, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret
Kyle Smith of the New York Post was quoted as saying Robert De Niro’s film “The Good Shepherd” was “the ‘Godfather’ of spy films”. That’s a horrible comparison, but saying “Army of Shadows” is the “Godfather” of Résistance films – or even ‘spy’ films as a whole – is not an overstatement. Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic was rediscovered and reissued last year and has arrived on a beautiful Criterion Collection DVD special edition. It’s an epic story of a group of ordinary French citizens and their courageous but dangerous and difficult efforts to front the Résistance efforts against Nazi occupation in WWII.
The opening shot is a magnificent long static take. The Arc de Triumphe framed perfectly at the end of the Champs Elysee. When a group of Nazi soldiers goosestep their way into frame from the background to the foreground we are mediately put in the time and place. It’s 1942 – Nazi occupied France. One of the leaders of the French Résistance, Philip Gerbier (Lino Ventura) has been captured and taken into interrogation. His escape is expertly engineered and executed like a trained killer would. He’s not a fighter though, but a civil engineer, forced into participating in the dangerous game of hiding and subverting the Nazis from within. Immediately we get the sense the 3 years of occupation has hardened Philippe. He’s not the same man before the war. But now, he’s a tough-minded, steely-eyed idealistic soldier.
The film focuses on a group of six Résistance leaders who are equally as determined to make the sacrifices needed to free France. But with the Nazi’s hot on their tail, this tests the resolve of each of members of the group.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s confidence with the story and the medium is apparent. Made in 1969, it’s one of Melville’s later films and a labour of love. Melville was known for his American-style French crime films – “Le Samourai”, “Le Circle Rouge”, and “Bob Le Flambeur”. Those films were genre-based and always had a cinematic panache to them. Melville takes “Army of Shadows” very seriously. The mood and tone is cold and isolated. There’s a blanket of despair consistent throughout, visualized by the desolate streets, the clean compositions, grey and colourless visual design and the cold and detached performances of the actors.
But when the film shifts briefly to London we immediately feel a different mood. The group makes a daring trip via submarine to London to get support from the British government. Philippe gazes around at the lively activity of the city. He walks into a bar and looks forlornly on the playful interaction of males and females. He’s reminded of the life he used to have as a pre-war citizen. The hustle and bustle of the city is palpable and contrasts the quiet subdued air of occupied France.
Eventually the group returns to France when one of their leaders is captured by the Nazis. Here on in a series of events tests the soldiers’ allegiance to their cause. No one is immune the pressure of torture and persecution. Everyone has their weak spot – including Mathilde.
The Criterion transfer of the film is magnificent. That combined with the classical cinematography and expert direction makes "Army of Shadows" one of the great films of the era. The themes of honour, guilt, and betrayal hold true to today as well. The film is closest in comparison to Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” (1971), both are great films about characters whose loyalties to their friends and countrymen are tested amid tumultuous times of war and subjugation.
Buy it here: Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection