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Army of Shadows

Jean-Pierre Melville's economical and boldly independent approach to filmmaking laid the groundwork for what was to become the French New Wave of the 1960s. Yet his films -- in terms of both style and content -- were not typical of that film movement. American audiences have recently had the opportunity to rediscover his work thanks to Rialto Pictures' dedicated efforts to reissue and restore his films.

Melville's wartime drama Army of Shadows was originally released in France in 1969. But critics at the time dismissed the film as a nostalgic tribute to Charles De Gaulle, the wartime hero who resigned from office after the student riots of 1968. The film also celebrated Resistance fighters just as the Resistance was about to suffer the scrutiny of French filmmakers in The Sorrow and the Pity and Lacombe Lucien .

CLIP German soldiers marching

The world Melville depicts in Army of Shadows is France of 1942 and 1943. It's a time when German soldiers march ominously down the streets of Paris and DeGaulle is running the Free French movement from London. The film, although based on a novel, has autobiographical elements for Melville who had actually fought in the Resistance.

The portrait he paints is of people who must live with mix of fear, hope and futility as they move invisibly through Nazi occupied France. The film focuses on an aloof resistance agent named Philippe. As played by a bespectacled Lino Ventura, Philippe has the demeanor of an anonymous bean-counting civil servant and the mind of an astute strategist.

Despite the wartime setting, the film Melville crafts is not a conventional war movie. There are neither battlefield scenes nor spectacular raids. The heroics here are tinged with grim fatalism and much of the conflict proves to be internal.

CLIP Footsteps down prison corridor

Take a scene where the Nazis march prisoners into a long corridor with machine guns situated at one end. The prisoners are told to run and anyone who reaches the far wall will be spared execution -- at least for that day. Philippe pauses to hold an internal debate about whether he should run or hold his ground.

CLIP Philippe speaking to himself

Moments like these turn Army of Shadows into an existential action film. In addition, Melville's choice of Ventura, an actor with a history of playing underworld types, links the film to Melville's gangster pictures. The Resistance fighters are much like the gangsters and hit men that follow a strict code of honor, are capable of ruthless violence, and operate knowing full well that any encounter could lead to death. They must also deal brutally with traitors. There's no mercy in doling out retribution and this raises moral dilemmas for people that are trying desperately to do the right thing.

Stylistically, Melville employs matter-of-fact pacing that seems in defiance of the drama inherent in his material. Melville, unlike many contemporary directors, understands stillness. He understands how to build tension through restrained editing and calm rather than frantic camerawork. In one scene, Philippe and another man await interrogation and possible torture by the Germans.

CLIP Whispers instructions, then hear clock tick before assault

Philippe whispers to the man that he will attack the guard and then they can both flee. But after this pronouncement, Melville makes both the characters and the audience wait anxiously for the moment of action as a clock ticks off the agonizing seconds. The scene reveals Melville's coolly elegant approach and subtle mastery of time and space.

A rare female figure appears in Army of Shadows and she proves as steely as the men. Simone Signoret plays Mathilde, a dedicated Resistance fighter. At one point she attempts to rescue a dying colleague held by the Nazis. She disguises herself as a German nurse and arrives at the prison with an ambulance. But a German doctor tells her the prisoner is too ill to be moved. Maintaining perfect composure despite the tragic news, she simply takes her leave.

CLIP "Heil, Hitler" [SFX ambulance drives off]

Her stoic fatalism reveals the grim realities that people like Mathilde faced. But Melville interrupts the somber proceedings for a brief moment of giddy cinephilia.

CLIP Gone with the Wind music score

While in London, Philippe and the chief take in a screening of Gone With the Wind . As they leave, Philippe lets a rare smile cross his face and the chief remarks "the war will be over for the French when they can see this great movie." American audiences now have a chance to see Melville's great movie, Army of Shadows , and hopefully they will not offer any resistance but rather surrender willingly to the filmmaker's sublime skills.

Army of Shadows is in French with English subtitles.

Companion viewing: Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samourai, The Sorrow and the Pity -----

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