At least as far as the movies go, the fecund late ’60s are a gift that keeps on giving. As allusive as its title, Jean-Pierre Melville’s all but unknown Army of Shadows, a French resistance saga made—and tepidly received—in 1969, emerges from the mists of time in a new 35mm restoration as a career-capping epic tragedy.
Melville’s gangster noirs Bob le Flambeur (1955) and Le Doulos (1962) exhibited a tendency toward abstraction that would culminate in the cool geometry of his betrayed hit-man thriller Le Samouraï (1967). In the aftermath of ’68, Cahiers du Cinéma dismissed Army of Shadows as “Gaullist film art.” But it’s here that Melville fully achieved his notion of the sublime, applying Le Samouraï‘s “empty” compositions and near theatrical blocking, as well as its methodical suspense, cosmic fatalism, and sense of grim solitude, to a subject far closer to his heart, namely his own World War II experiences.
Adapted from Joseph Kessel’s wartime novel, Army of Shadows follows a taciturn resistance agent (Lino Ventura) through a series of arrests, escapes, and betrayals. The bulky, self-contained Ventura had a long career playing tough guys, including a gangster in Melville’s 1966 Le Deuxiéme Souffle. Here, wearing glasses and carrying a briefcase, he’s the brains of the operation. Ventura looks like an accountant and thinks like a chess master. He has no past, no family, and—except for brief moments of terror—no expression. (Melville, however, indulges one bit of cinephilic excitement not found in the novel. Briefly in London, Ventura and his comrade Paul Meurisse are shown exiting Gone With the Wind; one remarks that “the war will be over for the French when they can see this great movie.”)
Dodging the Gestapo or, in an excruciating scene, executing a traitor, Ventura is reason made tangible, exuding a purity of purpose beyond mere action. Similarly, his relations with his comrades—Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Crauchet, and playing a Lyons housewife who creates a new identity in the underground, a magnificent Simone Signoret—are bonds stronger than love. Moving from rainy prison camps through sun-baked Marseilles and blitzed London to the bleak windswept towns of northern France, Army of Shadows sustains an atmosphere of total paranoia, occasionally leavened with existential pathos. Melville gives a close-up and a great line—”I’ll wait five minutes but I won’t wait a lifetime”—to an actress who never again appears. The fleeting look with which Signoret acknowledges her fate seems fixed in the heavens, like a constellation.
Although combat is constant, what’s striking about this war movie is the utter absence of a conventional battlefield. (During his brief London visit, Ventura visits a serviceman’s club where the dancing doesn’t stop even when the bombs start falling and the building shakes. He alone is startled—it’s a different theater of operations.) War in Army of Shadows is a problem to be solved or a theory tested, often in a few seconds and almost always under the most extreme circumstances.
Some may find Melville’s tone too detached. But the filmmaker—who described his movie as “a retrospective reverie”—is himself something of a chess player. Only when his vision reaches its chilling conclusion is it apparent that the title is absolutely literal. This really is an army of shadows. They are, all of them, dead men.