Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Audio: French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, 1.85:1 widescreen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, interviews, archival excerpts, Le journal de la Résistance, Jean-Pierre Melville et "L'armée des ombres," restoration demonstration, booklet
Length: 145 minutes
Release Date: May 15, 2007

You're in a car full of killers.  Nothing's sacred anymore.

Film ****

The chiseled and unshaven face, half-hidden in silhouette, a half-lit cigarette perched precariously upon the lips - this is the glamorized iconic image of the heroic French Resistance fighter.  Like a clandestine agent of the night, such a man would slip in and out of the shadows of back street alleys to deliver coded parchments while artfully dodging the German patrols ever in pursuit of him.

Jean-Pierre Melville's L'armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969) thoroughly de-romanticizes this mythology of the French Resistance that has been created over the years.  Indeed, in Melville's film, the Resistance is comprised not of valiant super-agents but rather of a tattered group of men and some women fighting as much for their own survival as for the cause of a Free France.  They live in a world of constant subterfuge and fear, the price of which is the loss of personal identity and sometimes even compassion.  Their successes for the greater cause are counterbalanced by betrayals within the haphazard organization, failed rescue attempts, and the regrettable task of eliminating one of their own from time to time.

Army of Shadows is very much as its title suggests - a dark and ultimately pessimistic glimpse at the unavoidable dangers of underground fighting.  Not surprisingly, the film, though exquisitely crafted, took a very long time to find an appreciative audience.  In its initial release in France, the film was unfairly savaged by French critics and essentially buried.  Even in America, the film was not shown until 2006, decades after it was first made.  Only in recent years has Army of Shadows been "re-discovered" and restored to its proper place among Melville's greatest cinematic achievements.

Before Army of Shadows, Melville had broached upon the subject of German occupation of France in two previous films - his first effort, Le silence de la mer and 1961's Léon Morin, prêtreArmy of Shadows was inspired by Joseph Kessel's wartime novel, based on his own experiences in the Resistance, but the film also incorporates some of Melville's own wartime experiences into its story of a group of individuals struggling to foster dissidence within German-occupied France.  Not surprisingly, Army of Shadows is often considered Melville's most personal film, while stylistically, it remains similar in tone and mood to the gangster and thriller films Melville was making around this late period in his career.

Army of Shadows opens with a march by German troops pass the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Élysées.  This haunting image sets the somber tone for the rest of the film to come.  In the very next scene, we witness the arrival to a prisoner's camp of Gerbier (Lino Ventura), loosely the film's central character.  Once his actual identity as an important Resistance fighter is discovered, Gerbier must make a daring escape attempt or face certain execution.  This time, he succeeds, although rescue and escape attempts throughout Army of Shadows are as likely to end in failure and death as in success.

Following Gerbier's escape, the rest of his small unit is introduced - the musclemen and assassins Le Masque (Claude Mann) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), Félix (Crauchet), the new recruit Jean-Françoise (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a capable leader in her own right.  Their names are, of course, pseudonyms designed to conceal their true identities, and these characters are in essence composites of actual Resistance fighters, many of whom did not survive the war.  Their actions are coordinated through liaisons with London and Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), the supreme leader of the Resistance.

Army of Shadows unfolds as a series of episodic vignettes covering a period from late 1942 until early 1943.  This was a dark time for the Resistance, then still comprised mainly of scattered groups of individuals with little contact between one another.  The film realistically portrays the ennui of long spells of inactivity or waiting with the terror inherent to the actual missions.

Fear is a natural response to any dangerous task at hand.  What motivates one agent to respond with cowardice where another might act with self-sacrificial bravery?  If every man has a vulnerability, what then is the breaking point at which even the most stoic individual, to the detriment of the Resistance, will falter and submit under German torture and interrogation?  Sadly, many agents who died during the cause did so anonymously, their fates never known, and this fact is accurately depicted in the film.  Even more poignant are the instances in which, in order to protect the organization, the Resistance fighters must assassinate one of their own.

Title notwithstanding, Army of Shadows is a harrowing and fatalistic drama, not an action film.  The few moments of violence in this film tend to be sudden, swift, and rather gruesome.  In one sequence, a traitor within the organization must be killed silently with bare hands.  In another sequence, a man is presented with the terrible duty of ordering the death of an agent who once saved his life.  Army of Shadows offers a portrayal of French Resistance fighters as not necessarily a united band of brothers but rather as a group of anti-heroes wary at times of its own shadow, operating within an ambiguous zone of morality.  To what extremes do the ends justify the means?

Through the perspective of time, history has already answered that question for us.  Nevertheless, many Resistance fighters did give up their lives in WWII, never to know whether their sacrifice made a difference or not.  Had Nazi Germany emerged victorious during WWII, would these Frenchmen have been labeled by historians as terrorists rather than war heroes?  Hopefully, this is one path that need not be re-visited too frequently, although humanity does seem doomed to repeat its own history on a regular basis.

BONUS TRIVIA:  André Dewavrin was an important leader in the French Resistance and has a cameo role in the film as himself.

Video *** ½

Army of Shadows is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.  The transfer was created from the 35mm original camera negative and was restored under the supervision of the film's original director of photography, Pierre Lhomme.  The film's blanched, blue-grey color palette is decidedly cold and depressing, but it perfectly complements the film’s fatalistic tone.  The dark scenes are occasionally a bit grainy with images that are difficult to discern.  However, overall the film does look quite spectacular, especially when one compares the before-and-after images shown on Disc Two in the restoration featurette.

Audio ***

Army of Shadows is presented in its original French monaural soundtrack.  The sound mix is a little uneven in a few spots but otherwise quite acceptable, considering its minimalist score and relative paucity of dialogue.

Features ****

Disc One of this two-disc set contains the restored film and a commentary track by film historian Ginette Vincendeau.  Disc Two holds the remaining bonus features, most of which are in French with subtitles.  Viewers are strongly encouraged to watch the film first before looking over the contents of Disc Two.

First on Disc Two is Jean-Pierre Melville, Filmmaker (4 min.), a short news segment originally created for the French television show Chroniques de France.  It aired while Melville’s film was in production and includes rare behind-the scenes footage alongside interview clips with the director himself.

Next are a couple of interviews.  The first (14 min.) is with the film’s director of photography, Pierre Lhomme, who focuses on Melville’s directorial style and also on the difficult process of restoring the film.  Lhomme supervised this restoration, part of which is included here along with a gallery of color tests plates (13).  The restoration featurette (7 minutes) concentrates on how lost frames were restored into the film, with image reconstruction, clean-up, and stabilization.

In the second interview (11 min.), the film’s editor, Françoise Bonnot, recalls her mother’s experiences as Melville’s editor, a job which she herself eventually took over!  Some of Bonnot’s anecdotes support the contention that as a director, Melville was a bit of a volatile tyrant, if a genius one.  This interview is conducted in English.

An episode from the French television program L’invité du dimanche (30 min.) is included.  Originally aired in March 1969, this episode presents interview segments with the director and his cast and offers more behind-the-scene footage from the film’s production. However, much of this production footage is shown in grainy black and white without sound or narration.  The latter half of this episode is devoted to a discussion of the French Resistance, with actual former members revisiting memories of the inherent tragedies and dangers involved.

Melville et “L’armée des ombres” (27 min.) is a series of interviews encompassing various anecdotes from former cast and crew about working with Melville.  As a director, he was an authoritarian maverick who terrorized and regularly intimidated his own actors.  Opinions in these interviews vary; some former colleagues were fond of Melville while others were quite exasperated by his mercurial tendencies.  All, however, agreed that Melville was a very talented director.

Le journal de la Résistance (34 min.) is a remarkable wartime documentary capturing on film the final days of German occupation of Paris in August 1944, concluding with the city’s eventual liberation and the ensuing celebrations and parades.  The stunning footage, much of it photographed by members of the French Resistance, includes actual clashes with the retreating but still dangerous German army.  Be forewarned that some of the images in this documentary are quite disturbing.  Narration is provided in English.

Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac appear in interview excerpts (5 min.) from Libération, libération: Le cinéma de l’ombre.  Signoret describes how Aubrac, her old history professor and later an important member of the Resistance, had served as the inspiration for Signoret’s character, Mathilde.

Excerpts (23 min.) from the television series Ouverz les guillemets re-unite former members of the Resistance as they debate their wartime activities, such as clandestine publications and differences of opinion within the organization.

A hefty 44-page booklet is included with this Criterion release.  The booklet contains three essays, cast and crew credits, and numerous photo stills from the film as well as a commemorative publicity postcard for Luis Buñuel's Viridiana.  "Out of the Shadows" by Amy Taubin examines the re-appraisal of Army of Shadows, which many critics now consider among Melville's greatest films; this essay briefly explores the film's inspiration and Melville's own experiences during the war.  "Melville's French Resistance" by Robert Paxton provides historical context for Melville's film and reveals the real-life counterparts who inspired various characters in the film.  "Melville on Melville: Army of Shadows" is an excerpt from a series of interviews conducted by Rui Nogueira with the director.  Melville discusses his personal wartime experiences and answers some common questions or misconceptions about his film.


Quite bleak and ultimately rather tragic, Army of Shadows is nonetheless a superbly powerful film.  It is directed with complete confidence by a true master of the thriller genre, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Criterion has done the film full justice with this classy release.

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