Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows is unlike most of his films. The vast majority of Melville’s films featured criminals doing shady things. Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Deuxieme Souffle, Le Samouraï and Le cercle rouge are all crime driven dramas but Army of Shadows is about the French Resistance during WWII.
The film was based on the novel by author Joseph Kessel who also wrote Belle de Jour. The movie starts with Lino Ventura being picked up by Vichy French police and imprisoned in a camp. He befriends one of the inmates who is planning an escape. Before that can happen Ventura is transferred over to the Gestapo for interrogation. While waiting for something terrible to happen to him, he makes a daring escape. The film quickly moves to Ventura regrouping with his resistance group, who include Paul Meurisse and Simone Signoret, both from Les diaboliques fame, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet and Jean-Pierre Cassel (actor Vincent Cassel’s father). They then start out by carrying out an assassination on former member who turned Ventura in. The story then follows several of the resistance groups efforts, from smuggling people out of the country into England to recruiting new members to breaking out captured members who are in the hands of the Germans.
While most of the members of the Resistance are portrayed as selfless heroes, the film is pretty bleak. Their efforts seem to garner little reward other than the eventual death that awaits them all but there is the occasional medal. When the film was released in 1969 it was poorly received in France because of some believed glorification of Charles de Gaulle, who at the time was out of favour in the public. As a result the film was never widely distributed and never made it to North America until 2006 where it made several critics best of the year lists. I’m still never sure if your best movies of the year list should include movies that came out decades ago but you just recently saw it. My list would never contain a film that was made in the year I was making it for.
Melville has crafted a film that is methodical, tense and realistic. It’s a shame that when it was released that it wasn’t recognized as the great film that it is.