Criterion Sunday 385: L’Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969)

Melville was always a stylist and that much has been clear in the films so far featured in the Criterion Collection, titles with Alain Delon such as the remarkable Le Samouraï from a few years earlier, or Le Cercle rouge from the following year. These films, along with his 1956 classic Bob le flambeur, are crime dramas in which laconic men don hats and heavy coats, look cool and carry out their crimes like elegant statesmen. Here our protagonists are also criminals, but only in the eyes of the Nazi-controlled Vichy government they are resisting; it’s set during World War II, with solid, stocky Lino Ventura playing Philippe Gerbier, head of the Marseille resistance. From the very start there’s a sense of the danger, as he’s picked up by the police and sent for questioning (involving certain torture and death), from which predicament he escapes this time, but throughout the film that heavy sense of impending death hangs over everyone. The film is thus a series of setpieces of characters just buying a little more time from their fate as they try to organise resistance to Nazi occupation. When one of their group is picked up, Simone Signoret’s Mathilde steps in, while meanwhile Gerbier has taken a submarine to London to meet the head of the resistance, a philosopher called Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), and coordinate strategies. At no point is there any particular glory (aside from the unseen hand of de Gaulle awarding Jardie a medal in London), just constant attempts to outwit the bad guys and put death off for one more day, all in Melville’s usual steely blue set design, noirish shadows hanging as heavy as the coats and impeccable suits his leads always wear. The cumulative effect is deeply emotional, just for knowing how impossible the situation is that they are all in, and how little they could know about what might happen after their inevitable deaths, but that we can watch knowing they didn’t ultimately die in vain.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a series of extras dealing with the work of the Resistance, among them Le Journal de la Résistance (1945), an anonymously directed and shot wartime documentary. At just over half an hour, this is narrated by Noël Coward (at least, the English version) and shows footage shot by Parisian cameramen of the battles that led up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944. We see fragments snatched from windows and hiding places of tanks rolling up the Champs Elysées, of dead French bodies piled in a courtyard as evidence that the Germans have fled, as shots ring out and barricades are lifted by Parisians quickly becoming aware that things have taken a turn. The Allied tanks aren’t far away as the citizens take up arms to drive back the Germans ahead of the final victory. It’s all very spiriting and narrated with a sense of pomp and idealism, but you’d expect that as a document made to strengthen morale in the dying days of the war.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the book by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographers Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz; Starring Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel; Length 145 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 January 2021.

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