The stakes in “Army of Shadows” are truly life and death, and that puts Jean-Pierre Melville’s remarkable 1969 nail biter on a different plane than contemporary spy thrillers. This is a movie for grown-ups; that is, for people who’ve seen enough of the world to wonder how honor survives.
“Army of Shadows” is especially recommended to filmgoers assaulted and/or insulted one too many times by banal, overblown secret agent escapades — A cute (and amnesiac) government spook solves his own identity! A cute (and megalomaniac) government spook rescues his wife from a globe-trotting sociopath! — and are ready to kick the Kool-Aid and try the hard stuff. Like Melville’s other gems, “Bob le Flambeur,” “Le Samourai” and “Le Cercle Rouge,” this is an unvarnished, uncompromising work.
The film centers on a cell of the French Resistance headed by the middle-aged, square-jawed Philippe Gerbier. Shrewd and decisive, Gerbier (portrayed with no-nonsense perfection by Lino Ventura) is part strategist and part assassin. Alas, he and his team don’t have much time to carry out attacks on the Germans; they’re too busy identifying and eliminating informers and collaborators on their own side.
It comes as a shock to realize that Gerbier and his group (including a lone woman, portrayed without a wisp of vanity by Simone Signoret) are, essentially, only playing defense. This is not the image of the Occupation we’re used to getting from movies, which typically treat us to inspirational acts of sabotage and a satisfying accumulation of dead Nazis. On the contrary, “Army of Shadows” presents life in the Resistance as unglamorous, unsavory, and desperate.
Melville is not engaging in historical revisionism here, or stylish nihilism. (Or late -‘60s existentialism. His previous film, “Le Samourai,” a minimalist masterpiece starring Alain Delon, stands as a definitive portrait of the anti-hero.) He is dealing in first-person accounts. The director took a novel by Joseph Kessel, which he’d read in London when it came out in 1943, and augmented it with his own experiences as a member of the Resistance for two years. There’s not a moment of false sentiment, or indulgence of any kind.
So Melville knows precisely what he’s doing introducing some unexpected ambiguity to the seemingly clear-cut imperative of fighting an occupying force. We’re never in doubt about who the good guys are, but — as with the Algerian freedom fighters (or are they terrorists?) in “The Battle of Algiers” — we have some queasiness about their tactics. The suffocation of a young snitch by Gerbier’s men in a seaside flat is both morally problematic and physically difficult. (In the latter regard, it brings to mind the arduous killing that Paul Newman carries out with the help of a desperate housewife and a shovel in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain.”) Somehow, before this movie we never gave much thought to the everyday nastiness that is so clearly a part of resistance.
The effect of “Army of Shadows,” ultimately, is to challenge our definition of heroism. The great victory that Gerbier, et. al, aspire to is not inflicting dents on the German war machine but surviving as long as possible. Theirs is a grim business, with zero margin for indiscretion or error. These tenacious fighters aren’t masters of their own destiny so much as rats in a maze, restlessly running back and forth. They are corralled, hamstrung, outnumbered.
“Army of Shadows” doesn’t supply the kind of adolescent pleasures that viewers weaned on American war movies and pretty-boy spy flicks are used to. Because Gerbier’s tangible contribution to the war effort is nebulous, and some of his band will not live long enough to celebrate a free France, there is neither vicarious pleasure nor glory in their heroism.
So what makes them so worthy of Melville’s admiration and our respect? Their code of honor. It boils down to two tenets, basically — maintaining loyalty to each other and retaining dignity in the face of Nazi barbarism. You might say Gerbier and his cohorts are the guardians of civilization in France amid the anarchic destruction of World War II. The Resistance can be viewed as the conscience of the French people, providing hope during the war and self-respect afterward, when the nation had to look itself in the mirror.
“Army of Shadows” was released only a year before the epic French documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity” punctured the self-serving national myth that everyone belonged to the Resistance. (Marcel Ophuls’ magnificent work contained the scandalous revelation that the Vichy government helped the Nazis round up the Jews.)
That should be kept in mind as we enjoy “Army of Shadows” from a historical distance as a tense drama about dogged patriots. In fact, it is an unbelievably brave film, one that exposed the feebleness of France’s response even as it paid tribute to the Resistance fighters. There aren’t many movies with that kind of integrity.
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