Though director Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows was released in 1969, it didn’t premiere in the United States until 2006. Starting today, Army of Shadows will play for a one-week engagement at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills, and if you’re a Melville fan, it’s an event you don’t want to miss.
The film, which centers on a group of brave French resistance fighters during World War II, begins with Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) interned in a Vichy camp. Any kind of imprisonment in Nazi occupied France is sure death for any resistance fighter, and Philippe narrowly escapes to live another day. A high ranking member of the network, Philippe’s main loyalty is to its leader Luc (Paul Meurisse), and both of them are dedicated to the cause, even if it means killing some of their closest (yet eventually traitorous) colleagues in the process.
As witnessed in Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, Melville’s male protagonists are terse tough guys who usually keep their feelings at bay. Even if they live a life of crime – their laser like focus helps them achieve the task at hand. That same dynamic is evident in Army of Shadows, but one of the film’s most pleasurable surprises is the strongest character is Mathilde (Diabolique star Simone Signoret), the most resourceful member of the organization. Whether it’s attempting to extract a resistance fighter from a Nazi stronghold or simply hiding in plain sight, Mathidle is an invaluable member to the team.
Melville’s superb command of the cinematic language is also a trademark of Army of Shadows. Through the use of unexpected voiceovers, pinpoint pacing, and kinetic action sequences, Army of Shadows is a story that should keep you immersed from the opening frame.
Running at a meaty 145 minutes, Army of Shadows is an epic that serves not only as an acting showcase for Signoret and Ventura (who is just as memorable as Melville’s creative muse Alain Delon) but also as proof of Melville’s ability to paint a visually and emotionally arresting narrative on a broad canvas.
Jean-Pierre Cassel, who plays new recruit Jean-Francois Jardie, also gives a standout performance in the feature. Jardie’s biggest task is to deliver a radio transmitter to Mathilde in Paris, and the directer uses Jardie’s attempts to evade Nazis checking suitcases in a train station as one of the story’s most nail biting moments. If you already didn’t know or thought this actor reminded you of another actor, the late Cassel is the father of actor Vincent Cassel (Ocean’s Twelve, Eastern Promises).
Jean-Pierre Melville, though often known as the king of the French gangster films, brought much more narrative subtext to his body of work. One doesn’t have to dig too deep to find those thematic jewels in Army of Shadows, and thankfully Melville doesn’t turn the movie into a preachy tribute to resistance fighters. In war, tragedy is an unfortunate bedfellow to courage, and though this “army” is a forced to be reckoned with, time may not be on their side. Another brilliant outing from Jean-Pierre Melville, Army of Shadows is the director’s magnum opus, the crown jewel that rests atop his stunning body of work.
For more info on Army of Shadows, please go to Ahyra Fine Arts’ official site.
Posted By: Greg Srisavasdi