Army of Shadows (1969)
June 26, 2018 10:03 AM - Subscribe

An account of underground resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied France.

Roger Ebert: Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" is about members of the French Resistance who persist in the face of despair. Rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism. It is not a film about daring raids and exploding trains, but about cold, hungry, desperate men and women who move invisibly through the Nazi occupation of France. Their army is indeed made of shadows: They use false names, they have no addresses, they can be betrayed in an instant by a traitor or an accident. They know they will probably die.

NYTimes: Melville's world is a world of broad shoulders and heavy burdens, shaved and grizzled faces, the civilized and the savage. It is a world in which a man's hat is an emblem of his professionalism, part of the armor he dons for battle. When a Resistance member walks into a boîte in "Army of Shadows," and Melville shows us a row of Nazi caps neatly lined on a shelf, it's as if he were showing us a cache of weapons.

Later this same man will be whisked away by the enemy and lose his own hat in the confusion. The image of the hat lying in the street like an upturned turtle is unexpectedly poignant because we understand with fatal certitude that the head that wore it will soon be no more.

Slant: With Melville’s vividly expressive camera and rhythmic pacing matched by Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz’s drearily overcast color palette, the film is, first and foremost, a prime example of the pre-Nouvelle Vague auteur’s atmospheric cinema, in which attention to tenor, tempo, and attitude are placed above all other concerns. Possessing only a moderate interest in clear-cut three-act storytelling, Army of Shadows works first and foremost on a sensory plane, with the director’s carefully modulated pans, edits, and juxtapositions coalescing into a mood that straddles the boundary between historical authenticity and stylistic artifice. Whereas the opening image of a German army procession in front of the Champs D’Elysees boasts a quasi-documentary verisimilitude, and a subsequent scene involving Gerbier describing an internment camp’s politically and culturally diverse population exudes a from-the-horse’s-mouth genuineness, much of the film nonetheless seems to exist in the same underworld of his American-influenced crime pics, a darkness-enshrouded hidden realm of furtive meetings and dangerous diplomacy. Amalgamating the seemingly real and unreal in its dim, dank, Nazi-occupied milieu, Melville creates a beguiling, off-kilter sense of experiential time and place via the weight of a clock’s portentous ticking, the bone-chilling dampness of a countryside hideout, and the affectionate camaraderie lurking beneath the stern exterior of communiqués between nationals struggling to reclaim their homeland.

LATimes: Though it has some of the trappings of Melville's thrillers, from clandestine meetings to fast cars on lonely roads, it is also a meditation on the nature of resistance and the price of courage. It's not that Melville doesn't believe his protagonists were heroes; he very much does. It's that this director's reserved ideas of heroism were poles apart from the way films ordinarily portray it.

In addition, "Army of Shadows" gives a sense of how savage and unrelenting the demands of wartime can be, and of how alone and hopeless those who commit to action can feel. History may glorify them now, but at the time these individuals despaired of their frailties and worried they were not doing enough.

AV Club: Throughout the deliberate sprawl of Army Of Shadows, there are no inspirational speeches or moments of backslapping triumph, just a silent acknowledgment that its cast has to fight at a steep cost. And here’s the secret of the film: They never actually get anywhere. Every single operation we see involves them protecting their own flank and doing whatever horrible things are necessary to continue their viability as an active cell. Whether they’re springing their own men from Gestapo custody or assassinating them for fear of exposure, Gerbier and his mates carry out the death-defying missions and terrible mercy killings only to keep running in place. Other than the single German stabbed in Gerbier’s early escape from custody, no one from the other side dies; in fact, Melville had considered putting the footage of German soldiers marching by the Arc De Triomphe at the end of the film, just to drive the fatalistic mood home. Even Gerbier, in a moment of sad resignation, frets “I kid myself that I’m still of some use.”

Make no mistake: Army Of Shadows is a magnificent tribute to the men and women of the Resistance, but in true Melville style, it’s also the least sentimental paean to heroism imaginable. The title suggests a covert operation lurking persistently out of view, but the film goes further than that by showing acts of heroism that were never seen or acknowledged—or worse still, misinterpreted as betrayal. Army Of Shadows flies in the face of World War II adventures that romanticize Resistance movements as escapist derring-do; it’s clear that everyone onscreen is permanently marked by the things their courage and patriotism lead them to. If the film could be said to have a mantra, it’s Gerbier’s line “Do what must be done.” And to the doomed souls that lived by that mantra, Melville pays dignified homage.

The Guardian: It's certainly true - as has been often pointed out - that Army of the Shadows owes much to Melville's gangster films, in the particular attention it pays to the same stately codes of loyalty, sacrifice and honour that the director put to such brilliant effect in Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, the two films he made either side of this. Melville makes no concession whatever to the tide of Nouvelle Vague-inspired realism that was sweeping world cinema in the late 60s, and in some ways Army in the Shadows is as stiffly arranged as any of the old black-and-white films that Melville himself idolised. But in its devotion to, and forging of, the mythology surrounding the French resistance, it remains a work of moving ideological commitment as well as beautifully detailed orchestration.

posted by MoonOrb (7 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The first 15 minutes of this movie are amazing, and the scene in the hotel waiting room is one of my favorite scenes of any movie ever. Besides being a great little spy suspense thing, it plants a lot of unease in the viewer's mind that the rest of the film goes on to underline again and again, in increasingly stark terms. One of the subtler elements of unease is that seems like EVERYBODY can read Gerbier as an important person in the Resistance, which absolutely has to spell doom.

That scene is what I think of as an exemplar of letting the viewer figure out what's going on, and it helps that it comes after what seems to be a slow setup comfortably padded by voiceovers and buffoonish Vichy guards and a prison that doesn't seem so bad. It's right in Melville's wheelhouse because spies are like the ultimate wise guys, not just people who know secrets but people who can figure out implications faster than other people, and take actions first..

I don't know enough of the history of the Resistance to appreciate the historicity anof this movie but this article was an interesting read.
posted by fleacircus at 1:44 AM on June 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is a great, but gruelling, film that really turned me on to Melville. That opening sequence!

If you want to be EXTRA-EXTRA-depressed after it, try putting it on a double bill with The Battle of Algiers.
posted by praemunire at 8:26 AM on June 27, 2018

Or Soldier of Orange?
posted by rhizome at 11:46 AM on June 27, 2018

Thank you for putting this on FanFare. Sometimes I feel alone in my love for this dark, dark film.
posted by seasparrow at 6:25 AM on June 28, 2018

A great film and probably timely.
God, how I hope it's not.
But totally worth re-watching.
posted by From Bklyn at 9:00 AM on June 28, 2018

God I love this film. I got to see it in a theater and when they're in the airplane and they open the door in the belly of the plane there was a collective sharp intake of breath. The film just came off as more of a documentary than a fictional retelling of the French Resistance, so the danger seemed more real. Such great stuff.
posted by nushustu at 8:01 AM on June 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is such an amazing film!
posted by johnofjack at 6:10 PM on November 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

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