It’s hard to know how to start on this, so there’s no better place than where the movie begins: the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, as a parade of Nazis file first past it, then down the Champs Elysee, right into the camera. A long, unbroken scene, devoid of reaction shots, or any context save an historical one; and this is how Army of Shadows will present its tale of the French Resistance under Nazi occupation. Unromanticized, matter-of-fact, almost documentarian.
By and large, we’re going to follow Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), an electric engineer who begins the movie on his way to a Vichy concentration camp for political prisoners. Gerbier will eventually escape when he is taken to the city for interrogation by the Gestapo, in a burst of violence surprising for the quiet intellectual we’ve spent the last fifteen minutes or so with. And so it is, layers of quiet deception always a heartbeat away from disaster or violence.
In the first segment after Gerbier’s escape, he and two of his comrades capture a young man who had sold out his cell to the Nazis, and take him to a safe house for execution. To their dismay, they find a family has moved in next door the night before and they cannot safely shoot the traitor, and so spend several minutes dispassionately discussing various forms of murder in front of their terrified victim.
Army of Shadows did not do well on its opening in France in 1969. One of the reasons is scenes like this, wherein critics felt that the heroes of the Resistance were being cast in the same light as the gangsters in other movies by director Jean-Pierre Melville, like Le Samouraï and the forthcoming Le Cercle Rouge. (There is a political angle, too, as De Gaulle was extremely unpopular at the time of the movie’s premiere, and there is a moment when the head of the Resistance is decorated by the General-in-exile, and he receives the award with a beatific smile, as if he had just been visited by God.)
Melville himself and the author of the novel on which this is based, Joseph Kessel, were both in the Resistance, and both escaped to England to join the Free France organization there, so as depressing and bleak as the events before us are, they still carry a ring of truth.
There is heroism on display in Army of Shadows, but it’s never rewarded. A chancy attempt to rescue a comrade fails, and one daring member, who arranges to get himself captured and tortured just to find the man they are trying to rescue, dies alone and in obscurity, his legendary luck failing him when he needs it most. All our characters are doomed and they know it – and death will not always come at the hand of the Nazis, but sometimes at the hands of their comrades – and they are still determined to play their hand out until the last.
It’s not an edifying movie, but it is a very, very good one. Thanks to a critical lambasting by Cahiers du Cinema in the 60s, it never even played in America until 2006, when it started getting its due acclaim as possibly Melville’s defining movie, if not an actual masterpiece. Definitely recommended, though not if you’re in need of cheering up.