(1969)5Bruce EderAudiences coming to Jean-Pierre Melville's Army Of Shadows with the expectation of typical war movie action, suspense, and heroics will be in for a disappointment -- though they may also be pleasantly surprised and downright enlightened by what they do find in place of those attributes. It is, to be sure, one of the finest movies ever made about war -- and specifically World War II, and especially about the role in which France found itself cast -- from the civilian point-of-view, and perhaps the best movie ever made about the wartime resistance movement in France. But its very accuracy and understated realism will probably surprise and disappoint audiences raised on the notions of such movies put forth by Hollywood. This is principally because the movie's focus is on the psychological aspects of that underground war, and mostly the film's mood is one of isolation and caution, while its tone is somber and dark. And considering the ominous tone over much of what we see -- and death does appear on screen here, quickly and brutally when it comes, even when it is referred to -- we also see surprisingly little of the enemy for much of the movie. Melville (who was involved with the resistance during the war) understood that the reality of such underground work was that one didn't have any more contact with the enemy than was absolutely necessary. It's all a far cry from the heroics and bold statements of patriotism that one usually expects in movies on this subject, but the resulting tension results in an engrossing, often spellbinding cinematic experience across 140 minutes of screen time -- this reviewer (who never has the time for such indulgences) went back to see it three more times. As to the cast, Lino Ventura gives the performance of a lifetime as the operational head of a highly effective resistance cell, and his work is matched by the entire cast, which includes Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel (in an unusual and highly effective dramatic performance), Christian Barbier and Jean-Marie Robain, all doing extraordinary work. Ironically, for all of its many cinematic virtues, Army Of Shadows was totally neglected in France when it opened in 1969 -- the French had just come off of two years of political strife growing out of a massive student strike, which seemed to render the events of the Second World War very distant in most people's minds, and Charles De Gaulle, the French leader and political figure most closely associated with the war, had just stepped down as president at the time. Additionally, the movie was overlooked entirely in the United States. Indeed, it wasn't even seen until 2006, following extensive restoration to replace worn and faded source materials, when it opened for what ended up being a three-month sell-out run at New York's Film Forum, an occasion for it was greeted by many US critics -- with no loss of irony -- as one of the best movies of the year.
In this war drama set during the French Resistance of WW II, a courageous fighter escapes Gestapo headquarters and returns to Marseille. There he and his gang capture a traitor and throttle him. They then try to rescue a Resistance fighter in Lyons. As they do so, the hero is again captured and his partner killed. Again the hero escapes just before he is executed. He then finds that a female partner has been captured. To avoid having her daughter forced to work in a Nazi brothel, the woman has informed upon the others. She is then released and subsequently killed by another Resistance fighter for revenge. The screenplay is based on Joseph Kessel's novel and became filmmaker Jean Pierre Melville's magnum opus.