L’Armée des ombres

 (Jean-Pierre Melville, France/Italy, 1969) 145 minutes


Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Producer: Jacques Dorfmann
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville,
  from the book by Joseph Kessel
Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme
Editor: Françoise Bonnot
Music: Eric De Marsan
Lino Ventura (Philippe Gerbier)
Paul Meurisse (Luc Jardie)
Jean-Pierre Cassel (Jean François Jardie)
Simone Signoret (Mathilde)
Claude Mann (Claude Ullmann ['Le Masque'])
Paul Crauchet (Felix Lepercq)
Christian Barbier (Guillaume Vermersch ['Le Bison'])

Reviews and notes

2008 Wellington, Mar del Plata, Torino

This drama of the French Resistance is Joseph Kessel’s novel translated through director Jean-Pierre Melville’s personal recollections of the period, and of course his extraordinary cinema technique. Lino Ventura stars as a member of a Resistance unit in the early years of the war, when nobility and recklessness were called for in equal measure. He wears a suit in prison, but sangfroid masks purity of mission: he’ll give you his last cigarette or execute you, depending. In a marvelous cast, Simone Signoret stands out as a master of disguises – bomb-maker, whore, old woman, collaborationist nurse, and, fatally, mother. Great escapes, intricate plotting, superb suspense in secret acts of courage: following all of Melville’s great gangster films, all the experiments in form, here is the original underworld. Army of Shadows is the Melville blueprint, revealed post-construction.
- Judy Bloch, Pacific Film Archive

Jean-Pierre Melville, while capable of a range of subjects, was at his very best when he made films about criminals. His finest work, Le samourai (1967, which is also arguably the best demonstration to date of Alain Delon's subtle and distinguished talent as a film actor), caught amazingly well the interior world of the isolated assassin, the doomed loner; but Melville became more famous for his representations of criminality as a group activity, not only as seen in the suspenseful reconstruction of a dangerous crime like the theft of a load of platinum from a high security van on a mountain road in Le deuxième souffle (1966), but also in the ambiance of camaraderie within the gang, a sort of brotherhood among thieves that could be dramatically undercut by the desperate circumstances of their lives.

It is this latter quality that carries over into Melville's L'armée des ombres, a thriller set in the tense milieu of the French Resistance and made, with what looks like cool but knowing hindsight, in 1969, a few years before Melville's death. Close relationships are confirmed amid the shared danger of the group's endeavours during the Second World War in a France whose edginess under occupation is a constant background to events. The Resistance fighters we observe have damped down their own edginess in order to carry out their tasks, but the strain shows on faces that know unceasing fear.

Melville's players are splendid, each of them subtly right: Lino Ventura as Gerbier, bent upon eliminating his betrayer after a brief period of imprisonment by the Vichy authorities from whom he escapes in the early part of the film; Paul Meurisse, remembered for his fine acting in Clouzot's Les diaboliques (1954), as Luc Jardie, whose humanity can be moderated in the cause of making an expedient decision; Jean-Pierre Cassel, in the best performance I have seen from him, as a new member of the group who is soon to suffer gravely in his attempt to rescue a colleague from the Gestapo; and above all Simone Signoret, making a warm and very credibly efficient creature of Mathilde, whose Resistance life has become a secret existence, unknown to husband and daughter, and whose individuality is quite amusingly submerged on occasion in her convincing disguises as a shameless poule, a drab spinster, a weeping widow or a German nurse. Good as they all are, however, it is from the personalities of the actors rather than from delineation of character in the screenplay that sympathy is bestirred, and in the long run it is the inherent tension of the situations rather than concern for the people involved that promotes the film's considerable if intermittent suspense.

Melville's professionalism is always evident, not least in his careful maintenance of a pervading blue-greyness in the colour photography, which only fleetingly gives place to warmer tones but generally intensifies the mood not only of wartime suppression but of that heightened nerviness that has invariably been suggested more readily in monochrome than in bright colour. This blue-grey look is as viable in the concentration camp at the beginning, where Gerbier wanders among his multi-national fellow prisoners, as in the expensive corridors of the Hotel Majestic in Paris, taken over by the Gestapo, where, after a lengthy time of silent waiting, action breaks out in a vivid contrast when Gerbier overpowers a guard and makes a panicky run through the streets and to the shop of a barber who luckily turns out to be helpful (a good cameo from Serge Reggiani, whose notable filmography includes Max Ophuls's La Ronde and Jacques Becker's Casque d'Or in the early 1950s).

A journey to London for Gerbier and Jardie tends to grind the plot to a halt, although there is inevitable curiosity value in the appearance of General de Gaulle in a house at Frognal, in a visit to Gone With The Wind which is accorded quite reverential homage, and in Melville's admiring impression of plegmatic British servicemen and women taking pleasure in a dance and paying no heed to the vibrations and flurries of dust set up by nearby bombing. To recapture the quality of suspense that Melville achieved in his crime thrillers, however, it is necessary to get back to Paris and to a powerful little sequence in an empty street where another Resistance man, Felix (Paul Crauchet), is swiftly captured and bundled into a car, his hat falling off in the process and remaining there in the deserted road, the inanimate object giving mute evidence of a circumstance whose grimness will be manifest when, in utter silence, the camera draws closer and closer to Felix's lacerated face.

Melville, although justly esteemed in NFT seasons, has never attained the kind of commercial distribution in the UK that his work has really warranted. Le samourai, for example, was insensitively cut to do service as a second feature on the circuits, although it still remained head and shoulders above whatever forgotten item it was supposed to be supporting. For the present belated but welcome appearance of L'armée des ombres we are indebted to the enlightened policy of the Artificial Eye Film Company, which, despite its name, can usually be counted upon to see a good thing clearly.
- Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, June 1978.

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