Army of Shadows (1969)   5 comments

poster army

Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a prisoner of the Vichy French travels, in manacles, to a French POW camp. Stoic and confident, Gerbier says little and observes much. It’s clear from his demeanor and his treatment by the camp’s commandant that he’s more than a simple smuggler. After an audacious escape from Gestapo custody, Gerbier meets up with his comrades in the French Underground and we begin to understand his importance. We meet the members of Gerbier’s underground cell after his escape as they gather to assassinate the turncoat who ratted him out.

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It’s a tense series of scenes in which a group of civilized men are forced by war to perform uncivilized acts. These acts and the missions they accomplish daily have formed the group into a de facto family, with Gerbier at its head. The men, along with Mathilde (Simone Signoret) work well together. They carry out their orders efficiently and without question. They’re accustomed to taking risks. Clandestine meetings, signals to their comrades, and smuggling supplies are the norm. A scene in which Mathilde smuggles a radio in her bag under some fruit reminded me of something Bob Crane would do in Hogan’s Heroes. That doesn’t mean the scenes were dull or ordinary. Insightful direction by Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge, Bob Le Flambeur) keeps the pace brisk, but he knows when to linger on a scene or on a character’s face. We even get to see the characters relax a bit.

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When Gerbier goes to London via submarine with the leader of their organization to get funds and supplies, he tours the city with his friend. They even see a film. After a screening of Gone with the Wind, Luc (Paul Meurisse) says, “The war will be over for the French when they can see this wonderful movie.” It’s a small moment, but one I watched a few times because it said so much.
With its narration and onscreen date and location stamps, Army of Shadows feels like a documentary. Under the guise of a procedural, a story takes shape. The story Melville presents is one of suspense, bravery, sacrifice, and love. The Resistance members risk everything to save their country from evil. They respect and even love each other and go to great lengths to protect one another. That sounds heavy and ponderous, but it’s not. Melville lets us know enough about the characters to care about them so when they face danger, we feel it. Army of Shadows is an account of one group of resistance fighters and how they interact. It’s a patriotic WWII film. It’s an action movie with some real weight. Joseph Kessel wrote the novel and co-wrote the screenplay with Melville. The story has enough twists to make it interesting and the acting is superb. I had never seen Lino Ventura before this film. He was a perfect choice. His quiet authority gave him the look of a natural leader. Simone Signoret is always wonderful and I wish Jean-Pierre Cassel had a bigger part. Eric DeMarsan’s music fit. The jangly piano he added to a few scenes gave the music a crazy quality I liked. This film kept me on the edge of my seat. After seeing Army of Shadows, I look forward to seeing Melville’s other films.

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I wrote this for Tyson Carter’s wonderful film blog http://headinavice.com/ and his Recommended By blogathon. Really fun idea, Tyson! Jay from http://www.007hertzrumble.com/ , a cool blog mostly, but not entirely devoted to James Bond musings and music, recommended Army of Shadows and the rest of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films to me and I’m glad he did. Thanks, Jay! Great stuff!
Tyson is also on twitter @Tysoncarter as is Jay @007hertzrumble and me @echidnabot

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5 responses to “Army of Shadows (1969)

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  1. Thanks. A deeply humane film that’s French ‘grown up’ cinema. Regards Thom.

  2. So glad you’ve taken the Melville plunge! IIRC, Army of Shadows was my 2nd Melville (after Le Cercle Rouge) and the film just hooked me. I went on to watch every Melville I could find. I couldn’t believe a talent such as Melville’s had somehow eluded me.

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