The long-awaited U.S. release of "Army of Shadows" gives us a sober, unglamorous view of the French underground that you can't shrug off.
In bad war movies, men talk before they die. They proclaim their true feelings, send love to their families, insist it doesn't hurt. In Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows," one moment they're alive and the next they're gone and all the talk in the world doesn't make any difference.
The 1969 film, just being released in the United States, follows a band of French Resistance fighters in the darkest days of World War II. The director was part of the minuscule underground himself and his respect for the material compels him to be truthful.
His film is a serious drama rather than an action adventure. The rebels don't get to blow up a Nazi ammo dump or assassinate a general; they're almost continually on the run or trying to escape from confinement. Their heroism is their stern resolution in an atmosphere of paralyzing fear, when a hand on your shoulder at a tavern could lead to a greeting, or to a Luger pressed to your kidney.
Melville gives us a story of ordinary men in unimaginable times. A key player in this civilian squad is the formidable Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier, a civil engineer as solid as a bank vault. We encounter him on his way to prison -- one of the better prisons, his gendarme escort cheerfully tells him, built to hold German officers in the last war but never used.
The impassive Philippe is an object of curiosity to the warden, to his fellow inmates and to us. He's quiet and watchful and when his chance for escape finally comes, he attacks so fast you could miss it. Philippe oversees several executions of traitors within his own group without flinching. If you wonder what could turn a professional man into a stoic killer, the answer is right there on his face. He is a man who has realized this is a treacherous universe. All he can rely on is himself and his code of honor.
Philippe's comrades include handsome Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), the intellectual who guides the small, lonely network, and Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a poised, matronly mistress of disguise. They are pencil-sketch characters, their main attribute a warrior's loyalty. The focus is military minutiae -- how you tape your glasses to your face when you parachute, what a German phone switchboard looks like, how to kill a man when a gun would be too loud and there is no knife. Melville cuts into and out of scenes a few beats too early or too late, creating a sense of unease even when the events onscreen are routine. The glacial pacing can be an irritant as the film unfolds -- I repeatedly wanted to speed things up -- but "Army of Shadows" won't leave you alone after you've seen it.