Never before released in the U.S., Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows finally emerges from anonymity this April to assume its rightful canonical place alongside the French master’s peerless Parisian noirs. A tale of WWII French Resistance based on Belle de Jour author Joseph Kessel’s novel and the director’s own firsthand experiences as a member of the anti-Nazi insurgency, Melville’s film is at once a spiritual cousin of his prior bushido-gangster epic Le Samouraï (with which it shares a dreamy mood of fatalistic detachment), as well as an unsentimental vision of war as an arena in which men and women achieve self-actualization, suffer moral decay, and most of all, do (or, disastrously, do not do) whatever a given situation necessitates. Amid this discordant backdrop, normal notions of good and evil are ultimately proven irrelevant, as the salient issue becomes not the “rightness” or “wrongness” of their deeds as much as that said actions are performed in accordance with the austere, unspoken code of conduct that governs and defines their lives. As with Le Samouraï’s Jef, the resistance fighters of Army of Shadows—led by Lino Ventura’s solemn Philippe Gerbier—are creatures of rigorous habit and adherence to duty, men whose willingness to follow through on their responsibilities marks them as conflicted figures in whom one can see both the terrible cost of, and the nobility achievable through, national conflict.
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.
Army of Shadows charts Gerbier and his comrades’ 1942 attempts at rebellious subterfuge and sabotage, though Melville wastes time on neither traditional character development—one gleans everything about his protagonists through their actions, their eyes, and the way they carry themselves, not through exposition or monologues—nor on neatly arranged plotting, his story (which is highlighted by a taut skydive and sterling firing squad rescue) proceeding as a series of chronologically ordered, and yet almost wholly self-contained, events. Planning attacks, organizing get-togethers, and escaping capture, Melville’s guerrilla fighters move through the world with ritualistic automation, their behavioral exactitude and stoicism a defense mechanism against—or, perhaps, the easiest means of interacting with—the cold, inhospitable environment in which they find themselves reluctantly imprisoned. This physical and cerebral precision is so intense that, as in a magnificent early getaway, Melville’s characters seem blessed with near-extrasensory kinship. Seated on a bench with another captive under the watchful eye of a German soldier, Gerbier only has to exchange a knowing glance and one curt instruction with the stranger in order to coordinate their flight to freedom, a beautifully orchestrated sequence in which the director’s circular cinematography seems to imply that the very origin of the idea for this breakout was simultaneously conceived by both men, their analogous deportment linking them in a brotherhood of like-minded intention.
As with so many of Melville’s noirs, doom lies in wait for those reckless or foolish enough to deviate from their prescribed obligations and loyalties, and Army of Shadows extends the director’s pessimism even further than is customary, positing a corpse-lined cause fought for by people who, regardless of their actions, seem destined for the grave—a fact confirmed by both the misery-laced glance shared by Gerbier and Resistance matriarch Mathilde (Simone Signoret) before her unavoidable demise, as well as by the subsequent postscript detailing the revolutionary crew’s fate. Melville’s outlook, however, ultimately reflects the fundamentally ambiguous realities of war, wherein there can be found not only ethical and emotional degeneration, but honor as well. In the film’s most harrowing scene, Gerbier and his men, unequipped with either guns or a knife, efficiently execute a traitorous informer by means of silent strangulation with a bath towel. Refusing to avert his camera’s vigilant gaze from the horrifying undertaking, Melville captures the unbearable intimacy of murder and the terrible spiritual and psychological toll suffered by those mired in combat. And yet in this unremitting watchfulness, the director also locates the ascetic dignity in Gerbier’s willingness to make, and carry out, the ugliest of choices and sacrifices—a stark reminder that, for better and worse, what war creates is not simple heroes or villains but, rather, warriors.