L'Armée Des Ombres (aka Army Of The Shadows) (Melville, 1969)[+Extras]-aNaRCHo
CRITERION RIP WITH COMMENTARY AND SECOND AUDIO TRACK INCLUDED!!!
The tightest thriller in town. Jean-Pierre Melville is widely worshipped for his gangster sagas, such as “Le Samouraï” and “Le Cercle Rouge,” but this tale of the French Resistance, though no less stylish (hats and dark suits still abound), has an added pulse of the heartfelt. It stars Lino Ventura as a stalwart of the underground movement, who slips the shackles of the occupying Germans and rejoins his small band of fellow-heroes. Not that their heroism is remotely flamboyant; what concerns Melville is the courage of the stoical, the phlegmatic, and the formidably organized. His direction honors that efficiency with a series of set pieces (one in a barber shop, another at Gestapo headquarters, a third in the face of a firing squad) in which the suspense grows almost intolerable. The movie, though made in 1969, has never been released here before. To miss it now would be a gross dereliction of duty. With an unflappable Simone Signoret.
The arrival of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows” is not a rerelease but a début. The film, though it hails from 1969, has never been distributed here. The title, which refers to the French Resistance, will mean nothing to most people, but for Melville-watchers it has acquired the weight of legend. If they, however, are the only ones who see it now, that will be a waste, since any moviegoers with a weakness for dry heroism, dark-toned humor, and storytelling of pantherish pace and grace—in short, lovers of cinema—should reach for their fedoras, turn up the collars of their coats, and sneak to this picture through a mist of rain.
The scene is instantly set. A column of German troops marches beside the Arc de Triomphe; there is something immediately terrifying in the way that Melville pauses the troops in freeze-frame—as if the cameraman had been interrupted (or killed) in mid-shot, or as if the whole scene were a slice of smuggled newsreel from last week. Up come the words “20 October 1942,” and we see a long, low, black car being driven through a sunless countryside. Welcome to Melvilleland.
Inside the car is Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a prisoner of the German forces, who is being ferried to a small camp of fellow-undesirables. He stands before the commanding officer, who reads an official description of the new inmate: “Distant and ironic attitude. Suspected of Gaullist ideas.” Two things are crucial here. First, nothing has been proved; suspicion is more potent than hard evidence in the twilit limbo patrolled by Melville’s creatures. Second, the officer does not read out the words; he murmurs them to himself, the first of several characters to retreat into voice-over, and this sense of men as sequestered spirits deepens throughout the film—as does our treasuring of those who, against all odds, insist on brotherly love.
What follows is as inexorable as the beating of a pulse. How Melville renders that fatalism not as a grind but as a source of tremulous suspense is a miracle that I find difficult to explain. Gerbier is transferred to Paris, where he awaits interrogation. Seizing the moment, he escapes and returns to the Resistance network in which he has quietly toiled. There he encounters stalwarts like Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), as dapper as a flying ace in his leather jacket, and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), a sort of human menhir. Then, there is Mathilde (Simone Signoret), the bravest of them all. She is middle-aged and drably clothed, with a certainty of will that would not be out of place in a mother superior. Mathilde has one weakness: she carries a photograph of her daughter—a source of possible blackmail—in her handbag. “Don’t keep it with you,” Gerbier says, but she does. So much of “Army of Shadows” is concerned with slips in judgment or curt, momentous gestures of faith. The resisters, with their code of monkish austerity, could almost be members of a closed order. Nobody sabotages a railway line or blows up a munitions dump; all their energy is directed to their own survival, or, occasionally, to the necessary execution of a traitor. (There is a strangulation scene of which Hitchcock would be proud.) Not that “Army of Shadows” truncates, let alone mocks, the myth of the Resistance; Melville himself served in its ranks, and his work is reverent toward its leaders—and toward de Gaulle, who invests one of them, on a fleeting trip to London, with the Croix de Guerre. But your lingering impression is that the underground movement had a symbolic, near-sacred purpose that outweighed the practical, and in that imbalance the movie cuts to the heart of the argument about France’s collective, endlessly troubled memory of the war.
You need not be schooled in that debate to relish the virtues of the tale. All that’s required is a liking for Lino Ventura, who, with his boxer’s nose and his hard-won smile, is the true heir to the humane solidity of Jean Gabin. You must accept that, when Melville clothes the heroes like those of his own gangster movies, such as “Le Samourai,” he is not imposing a style so much as honoring a strain of melancholy toughness—not a bad defense mechanism under such conditions. Above all, you have to feel the plucking of your nerves as Gerbier flees his captors along empty nighttime streets, slows to a walk, and slips into the only shop where the lights still burn. It happens to be a barber’s, so he sits and has a shave, still panting from his exertions, and not knowing whether the man with the razor will help him out or slit his throat. There is no backchat, no music: nothing but the scraping of the blade. For the first, and maybe the only, time this year, you are in the hands of a master, and you follow every cut.--Anthony Lane, New Yorker
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May 10, 2009, 18:55:52
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