Beware, major spoilers ahead.
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. Perhaps a line from Roger Ebert’s review best accounts for the contemporary power of this emissary from 1969: “Rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism.”
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for Film Comment and Sight & Sound. She also writes frequently for Artforum. This piece originally appeared in the 2007 DVD edition of Army of Shadows.