Friday, August 21, 2009

1969: Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville)

Released: September 12, 1969

a.k.a.: L'armée des ombres

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville; Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville based on the novel by Joseph Kessel; Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz; Studios: Les Films Corona and Fono Roma; Producer: Jacques Dorfmann

Cast: Lino Ventura (Philippe Gerbier), Paul Meurisse (Luc Jardie), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Jean Françoise Jardie), Simone Signoret (Mathilde), Claude Mann (Claude Ullmann/“Le Masque”), Paul Crauchet (Felix Lepercq), Christian Barbier (Guillame Vermersch/“Le Bison”), Serge Reggiani (The Hairdresser)

Jean-Pierre Melville is the only director who could have made Army of Shadows and achieved such spectacular results. There certainly are other directors that have excelled in making “war films” and could have outdone any action sequences that Melville created. There are definitely other directors, both French and around the world, who have successfully explored the struggles of common French citizens in their efforts to resist the Nazi occupation. But in Melville, there was a man who could not only adapt compelling source material for the screen, but also draw upon his own unique experiences in the Resistance movement. Even more importantly, Melville represented a director who quite naturally created characters that went well beyond the clichéd heroes common to many films dealing with World War II. Utilizing his knack for creating the brooding, conflicted people that are used so perfectly in his crime dramas, Melville transplanted these same characters into the setting of 1940s France and allows the audience to appreciate the decisions that these seemingly ordinary men were forced to grapple with.

This is what stands out to me most about Army of Shadows and why I make the bold statement at the beginning of this piece. Knowing Melville’s track record, it seems obvious to me that he was the perfect fit to make the travails of characters like Gerbier, Luc and Mathilde come alive and feel harrowing to everyone watching. In the 1960s, prior to beginning work on Army of Shadows, Melville made three highly-acclaimed crime dramas that presented heroes that were far from perfect. In Le Doulos, Le deuxième soufflé, and Le Samourai, the lead characters are ones that are difficult to classify. These men may be criminals, but they all show redeeming qualities that reveal dualities to their personalities. Nothing is ever completely as they seem with any of them, whether it be Jef Costello or Maurice Faugel.

So it is in Army of Shadows, which feels very much like a noir-meets-war film. Absolutely nothing is black and white. Even when the answers to problems confronted by the various characters appear obvious, the actual execution or implementation of the answer is never simple. This gray area is what makes the drama so riveting. Rather than displaying French heroes performing herculean feats and slaughtering any Nazi in their path, Melville highlights the haunting decisions that must be made by those leading the Resistance. Even though men like Gerbier have dedicated their lives to freeing France and defeating the Nazis, the trepidation with which they make life-and-death decisions for themselves and others feels sincere.

The movie focuses on the efforts of engineer turned Resistance fighter Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), who at the start of the film is being transported to a Nazi internment camp. While being transferred from this camp, Gerbier sees an opening and makes a daring escape. Managing to dodge the gunfire that ensues, he works his way back to Marseille and reenters the Resistance network that he heads in that city. The film then fleshes out the extent of the secretive organizations operating throughout France, as the various contacts that Gerbier works with are revealed. We meet Felix (Paul Crauchet), his second-in-command in Marseille, and the always-effective Mathilde (Simone Signoret), who as a woman appears to be completely above suspicion by the authorities in Paris. There are also more mysterious figures that are known only by codenames like Le Bison (Christian Barbier) and Le Masque (Claude Mann). It eventually emerges that they all answer to a boss in Paris, but only a select few are aware of his true identity (which will not be revealed here!).

The story is told very matter-of-factly, making it the antithesis of any romantic visions of the French Resistance movement or WWII in general. At times, the movie is downright brutal, and will make a viewer squirm and hesitate in the same way that the characters on the screen do. The scene in which Gerbier and his underlings uncover a turncoat and drive him to a safe house in order to execute him makes me uncomfortable in a way that few other scenes I have ever viewed are capable of. They drive the man, who in actuality looks like a boy barely out of his teens, to the house and realize that the neighbors are home. This rules out the original plan of shooting him and disposing of him quickly. The men then begin going over the possible methods of execution, trying to come upon the one least likely to alert the neighbors. All of these machinations take place while the soon-to-be victim looks on, terrified by the fact that he is witness to the planning of his own execution. Plus, the more discussion that takes place, the more time that is allowed for the enormity of the situation to sink in upon Gerbier, Felix, Le Bison and Le Masque. When they finally settle on strangling him, the assassins themselves are so horrified by the prospect that they argue over who is actually going to carry it out. Eventually the man is strangled with a dishtowel and although there is little gore or blood, it is among the most disturbing scenes I have ever seen in film. It is impossible not to sympathize with these men who are trying to act as detached partisan leaders, but can never completely shed their ordinary civilian personas.

Melville couples such psychologically troubling scenes with sequences that are reminiscent of the action sequences he perfected in his gangster films. Gerbier’s escape from the Nazis is the equal of a Hollywood action blockbuster. So too is the distressing scene in which his would-be Nazi executors instruct Gerbier and other captives to start running down a dark hallway in hopes of outrunning the machine guns that they have set up. They tell the men that anyone who can successfully run the gamut will be spared. There are other exciting scenes that are more familiar in similar war films such as Philippe being secretly spirited away to London by a British submarine or his parachuting back into France in order to reenter the country undetected.

Lino Ventura as Gerbier is spot on. As a bespectacled, middle-aged engineer, he is completely believable. He lends credence to the idea that most of the people involved in the Resistance were ordinary citizens thrust into extraordinary situations. When he grapples with important decisions that must be made, the trepidation displayed feels not only understandable but fitting. Jean-Pierre Cassel as Françoise Jardie and Simone Signoret as Mathilde are excellent as well, but it is Ventura who stands out from all of them.

How this movie was released to a middling reception in France and was never officially released in the United States until 2006 is mystifying to me. From the opening iconic shot of Nazi storm troopers marching through the Champs-Elysées until the devastating finale (which, again, will not be revealed here, but let me take the time to reiterate how amazing I feel the finish is), there is hardly a misstep in the entire film. Melville may have directed “better” films, depending on how you want to define that subjective term, but he never made a movie more moving than Army of Shadows.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1969: In looking everything over, I realized that 1969 was a very good year, even if there is at least one major film that I couldn't get a copy of to watch for this countdown. The one key film that I have not seen is Costa Gavras' Z, which is one that I'm guessing would be right up my alley. On the bright side, it looks like Criterion is releasing the film in late October, so while that does nothing for this countdown it will be nice to finally get to see it.

As for those that I have seen, there are two favorites in this runner-up category. The first is the counterculture road story Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper. I know that it turns a lot of people off, but I genuinely enjoy it -- the craziness, the great use of pop music, the snapshot of a certain era and subculture. The other is George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is my favorite Paul Newman-Robert Redford collaboration and among my favorite westerns as well. The other movie that I would acknowledge, although I don't place it in the same category as the previous two, is Sydney Pollack's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?.

For a second straight year I also have to point out that I go against the conventional pick of the top film of this year, as Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is one that I have never cared for. I can think of two Peckinpah westerns that I find to be vastly superior to The Wild Bunch and have always been surprised to see this one lauded so much more than other efforts of his that I think are much better. Just a personal opinion, and the influence that The Wild Bunch has had on westerns and film in general is undeniable.


  1. Dave, I'm almost tempted to leave it to a coin flip between Army of Shadows and The Wild Bunch, but having so far watched Army only once, I have to favor Wild Bunch for holding up over numerous viewings. I like it for the great acting ensemble, the great lines of dialogue and the eruption of Peckinpah's fully developed style. I can also see how viewers might complain that certain aspects of the film are overdone or overstated. As well, while I obviously hold Wild Bunch in higher regard than you do (and I hope you're not saying one of the better Peckinpah westerns is the last one!), I can't fault anyone for ranking Army higher. It was actually the first Lino Ventura movie I'd ever seen (or recall seeing) so I didn't have to deal with his alleged gangster typecasting. But thinking back on it after seeing several of his great gangster films and adopting him as one of my favorite actors, I might say Army is his finest work.

    Our different western sensibilities have clashed in the past, and I suppose they do so again when I say that Butch Cassidy has never done anything for me. On the other hand, I'm with you on Easy Rider and They Shoot Horses, and I'll also be waiting for October to check out the Criterion Z. We'll have to compare notes in the fall.

  2. My Own #1 Film of 1969:

    Kes (Loach; UK)


    The Colour of Pomegranates (Paradjanov; USSR)
    Days and Nights in the Foreset (Ray; India)
    Boy (Oshima; Japan)
    High School (Wiseman; USA)
    Un Femme Douce (Bresson; France)
    Army of Shadows (Melville; France)
    Blind Beast (Massumoto; Japan)
    Eros + Massacre (Yoshida; Japan)
    Le Boucher (Chabrol; France)
    Funeral Parade of Roses (Matsumoto; Japan)
    Witches Hammer (Vavra; Czechoslovakia)
    Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Neame; UK)
    My Night at Maud's (Rohmer; France)
    Salesman (Masyles; USA)
    Midnight Cowboy (Schesinger; USA)
    Women in Love (Russell; UK)
    Satyricon (Fellini; Italy)
    The Passion of Anna (Bergman; Sweden)
    The Sorrow and the Pity (Ophuls; France)
    Z (Costa Gavres; Greece/France)
    Adelheid (Vlacil; Czechoslovakia)

    One of the greatest of years, and my longest list of runner-ups ever, as I expected it would be. I am no fan of THE WILD BUNCH either Dave, and BUTCH CASSIDY is OK, but nothing special. Your choice of ARMY OF SHADOWS is an excellent one, as it's one of Melville's three undisputed masterpieces along with LE CIRCLE ROUGE and LE SAMURAI.

    Great essay her, and I love the proposal of "noir meets war film." Here it is in a nutshell:

    "Utilizing his knack for creating the brooding, conflicted people that are used so perfectly in his crime dramas, Melville transplanted these same characters into the setting of 1940s France and allows the audience to appreciate the decisions that these seemingly ordinary men were forced to grapple with."

    Marvelous work here on a seminal masterwork of cinema from a great auteur.

    My won #1 film, KES by Ken Loach is still only available on Region 2 DVD, which for the moment I can't copy. But I'm expecting soon I have this issue resolved as I just paid for Region Free DVD capabilities, but they have not yet released the go ahead. KES is a painful, shattering realistic coming-of-age tale of loss and confinement, set in a coal mining town in the UK. It's one of the greatest films ever made in Britain, it is a film that will move you as deeply as any film ever made, and it's one that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Ken Loach is a master, perhaps the greatest British director, edging out Davies and Leigh.

    The Paradjanov and the S. Ray as well as the others here are very great films.

  3. Dave – a wonderful posting and Army of Shadows is a shattering piece of work and my choice of the best film of 1969. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is a good film but I don’t believe it to be at the same level as “The Wild Bunch” or my other western on the list “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here.”

    #1 Army of Shadows

    Runner ups

    The Wild Bunch
    Midnight Cowboy
    They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
    Last Summer
    Women in Love
    Medium Cool
    Alice’s Restaurant
    Le Boucher
    Tell Them Willie Boy is Here

  4. Samuel - It is interesting how we are both big western fans, but our tastes do go in quite different directions. I guess that's the beauty of movies! For whatever reason, The Wild Bunch has just never done anything for me. There's still a chance that Peckinpah makes this countdown though, although there is still some decisions to be made in that regard.

    Sam - Interesting pick. Ken Loach in general is a major blind spot in my viewing and is something that I need to fix.

    John - Thanks for the compliments... and I haven't seen "Tell Them Willie Boy is Here" but I am now intrigued.

  5. When I think of Army of Shadows, other than how great a war film it is, I think of Simone Signoret's performance - People who complain that Melville didn't portray strong female characters should watch Signoret in this film.

    This film and Le cercle Rouge, is what made Melville my top favourite director.

    My picks for 1969 would be:
    Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid
    The Sicilian Clan
    True Grit
    The Wild Bunch

  6. Though you didn't pick it, I'm very glad you stuck up for Easy Rider, which is easily my own choice for 1969. True, the film is unembarrassed to be what it is, but it also sports some great writing, some imagery so iconic it has not dated, and some of the best uses of music with movement (not just Born to the Be Wild but, even better, the use of The Pusher to set the mood in the beginning). It's one of those movies that gives me a joyous kick in the gut whenever I watch it. The rawness and ambition (which some would label "pretension") is an essential component to the film's vitality. And Jack Nicholson is a hoot.

  7. Agreed on all points. For the short amount of time that Nicholson is actually in the film, he's a force and a completely riot. And another favorite use of music is with one of the greatest songs of the 60s, The Band's "The Weight."

  8. Dave, I just finished watching this for the first time. Wow, what a film! I was curious, I thought it seemed to be an incredible influence on both THE GODFATHER and THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Rota's score and the way that Coppola uses it in the movie seem to come from here. And Friedkin's use of the zoom in THE FRENCH CONNECTION seem to owe a lot to this one, as well. Curious of your thoughts on this?

  9. Jeffrey - Glad to hear you liked it, it is a definitely an all-time great! I go back and forth and whether this or Le Samourai is my favorite Melville film.

    These connections you bring up are very interesting. I think that you're spot on about the influence over The Godfather. The French Connection point is even more interesting, though, as it is not one that I really ever thought of. It's been quite a while since I watched The French Connection, but this makes me feel the urge to pull it off the shelf and check it out again!

  10. Thanks, Dave! I just saw this response to my question. I'll be interested to hear what you have to say about the parallels to THE FRENCH CONNECTION.