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With: Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Christian Barbier, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Meurisse
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the 1943 novel by Joseph Kessel
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 145
Date: 09/11/1969

Army of Shadows (1969)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Resistance is Futile

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jean-Pierre Melville's career represents something of a conundrum, because in Hollywood, we prize "serious" efforts and trivialize "fun" ones. Case in point: nobody suggested even for a second that Ang Lee should win a Best Director Oscar in 2003 for Hulk, but nobody doubted even for a second that he should win in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, though both films were directed at about the same skill level.

But for Melville, the reception has been the opposite. His languid, crystalline crime films Bob le Flambeur (1955), Le Doulos (1962), Le Samourai (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Un Flic (1972) are revered and beloved by critics and film buffs, both highbrow and middlebrow. Likewise, filmmakers as diverse as John Woo, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and Jean-Luc Godard have all paid tribute to Melville. Now comes Army of Shadows, not a crime film, but a very serious and even bleak look at the French Resistance during World War II. It opens today at the Balboa in San Francisco, at the Shattuck in Berkeley and at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Made in 1969, Army of Shadows makes its official U.S. debut this year in a restored print from Rialto Pictures. When it was released in Europe it received a mixed critical reaction and earned mediocre box office. It arrived in the middle of a changing cultural tide, and was considered old-fashioned and out of date.

In the U.S., a movie about the heroism of resistors and the fruitlessness of war may not have been entirely welcome in the middle of Vietnam. Now, however, Army of Shadows looks quite like another masterpiece on Melville's resume. Though it's not a pulp story or a crime story, Army of Shadows still has its share of gripping suspense. It begins in 1942 as the bulky, bespectacled Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) rides to a concentration camp in the back of an armored truck.

Later, when picked up and delivered to Gestapo headquarters, Gerbier sees a chance for escape. He races down the street, ducks into a barbershop and asks for a shave. It's a great image -- from under one knife to directly under another. We eventually learn that Gerbier is the head of a Resistance faction, which includes his colleagues, code-named Le Bison (Christian Barbier), Le Masque (Claude Mann), Felix (Paul Crauchet) and the new recruit Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel).

They each look up to the older, craftier Mathilde, a still-sexy, slightly frayed dame that can get virtually anything and go virtually anywhere right under the Gestapo's collective nose. She's played superbly by the diamond-eyed Simone Signoret, otherwise known for her roles in Max Ophuls' La Ronde (1950), Jacques Becker's Casque d'or (1952) and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique (1955). They all work for a mysterious boss, Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), whose identity is secret even to his own flesh and blood.

While the film is technically a serious drama, it's not without its share of tense, thrilling sequences. In one, Gerbier departs London and must parachute out of an airplane to avoid detection. Melville draws the sequence out, allowing Gerbier -- and us -- to wait for the terrifying moment. Meanwhile, Gerbier tries to grab forty winks on the freezing floor, his glasses taped to his head, waking for several false alarms.

In another, the Germans put Gerbier through a horrifying test of character, giving him a handful of seconds to run before the snipers begin firing. Perhaps the most harrowing of all is Mathilde's attempt to rescue a badly beaten Felix from a Gestapo stronghold. The rescue does not end quite the way you'd expect, but Mathilde keeps her wits about her.

The odd thing about Army of Shadows is that our band of outsiders never plans nor executes any offensive attacks. It's all rescues and defenses; they simply hold their position, never making any headway against the enemy. Melville is not underlining the cowardice or ineffectiveness of the French. Rather, he's illuminating the pointlessness of the entire situation. Everyone loses here.

To his great credit, Melville executes this idea within the lines of a truly exceptional, compulsively watchable film. All of the angry modern filmmakers looking to "send a message" with their latest works could do worse than to look at Melville for a more powerful, more effective example. Indeed had it appeared here, Army of Shadows would most likely have ranked among the best films of 1969. Now it very certainly ranks among the best films of 2006.

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