Through Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville takes the mystique of French Resistance during World War II and shows it for what it really was. Opening in October of 1942 and ending a year later. During that year, we follow various members of the French Resistance as we get a very exclusive inside look at their missions and all the risk and terror that comes with fighting against Nazi-occupation at a time when Germany was still in control of much of Europe. Melville does not glamorize their duties, there are no elaborate heists or professional looking killings. A rescue attempt that has the build-up to compare with the heist scene from his style-drive crime-drama, Le Cercle Rouge (1970), quickly evaporates with a sequence of events that is very tragic and real.
Based on Joseph Kessel's book of the same name that was published in 1943. His books mixes his own experiences with fictionalized versions of Resistance members. Realizing that much of this plot is based off real life experiences is not surprising. Running on a very slow-paced narrative that is a lot less glamorized that Melville's other notable films was a very noticeable difference. To appreciate a film that does not resort to cheap tricks, but instead uses time -- 144 minutes -- and effort to give us a realistic image of the French-Resistance and also a very real look at human nature with all its corruption.
Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is a civil engineer with contacts that intimidate the Nazis. We are not told exactly why he is arrested, but since it is 1942 and the Germans are his captors we can assume it is because they find his influence threatening. He is transferred to the Gestapo and showing why his police report describes him as "instinctive" he escapes. Once free, him and his partners Felix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), and "Buffalo" (Christian Barbier) find the man who informed on Gerbier to the police. They take him to an abandoned apartment, where newcomer "Mask" (Claude Mann) is waiting, to kill him which turns out to be one of the most shocking, and most lasting, moments of the film and their first real act of violence. From then on they are in for good, and their fates quickly become evident.
Other members of their group are Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassell), a daring former pilot, Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a genius planner who disguises herself from her family as a housewife, and then Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a detached scholar. Through their eyes we witness a world of terror and looming hopelessness; a feeling that we all share and understand.
There are some very distinguished faces in this film. Italian actor Lino Ventura guides us as the extremely hard to read character, Philippe Gerbier. He can be remorseless though he sees the tragedy of the entire situation him and his partners are in. Jean-Pierre Cassell is the father of Vincent Cassell who has become one of the best actors working today, Paul Meurisse is best known for his role as the vindictive headmaster in the 1955 film Diabolique. Simone Signoret's performance as the planning genius, Mathilde, who becomes one of the many tragic figures whose life is ended by the very people she had saved, is both wonderful and unexpected since Melville has always been known for having a great lack of female performances in many of his films. Much of the time they play parts that have the single duty of adding a female sex-appeal to his male dominated films, it takes the wonderful Mrs. Signoret to bring a woman's emotional understanding to a very dark a menacing film.
Army of Shadows keeps us in an endless state of suspense. Giving off the feeling that at any moment something terrible will happen, by doing that Melville makes us feel what his characters feel. In this kind of work, they risk being caught or killed every moment of every day. None of Melville's films have ever had that much violence and each one of his crime film's body counts can be counted on one hand, it is how he builds up each major moment to the boiling-point. Almost every moment of "violence" is implied, when Felix and Jean-Francious are captured we never see them actually get beaten, just the gruesome aftermath of their tortures. I admire filmmakers who can put their characters in situations that constantly risk their lives while never feel the need to make a shoot-out or elaborate murder that modern movies feel are so essential.
Melville makes this film eloquently slow-paced. How can a slow pace be eloquent? Well, I regularly found myself being entranced into the most simple scenes. The most powerful scene of the film is when Gerbier finds out that Mathilde was captured and that she gave away information because they had threatened her family. Gerbier comes to the conclusion that she must be killed which is received in furious dismay by Buffalo and Mask, and rightfully so because she had saved all of their lives on various occasions with her escape-planning. A violent confrontation is avoided when Luc Jardie makes a very risky "hypothesis." Battling ideals that attack the morality of everyone are constant strugglees each character must face and ultimately fail at handling.
Since its initial release came in the wake of the largest general strike ever, which left Army of Shadows commercially unseen and critically attacked for "glorifying" Charles de Gaulle, who led the Free Frech Forces during World War II and was also the first president of the French Fifth Republic. Those colliding events along with Melville's popularity made it only a matter of time until enough people fought for its re-release -- restored editions by both StudioCanal and the Criterion Collection -- and it even was brought back to theaters in 2006. So, in many ways a sort of legend follows this film and Melville is just the director to live up to all the hype of a film that is historically honest and daring. Without a doubt one of the great visions from Melville, resulting in one of the most important French films.