Army of Shadows (1969) – Jean-Pierre Melville’s pensive cloak-and-dagger masterpiece

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Legendary French actor Lino Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier, a former engineer who heads a network of the French resistance in Marseille. After one of his agents betray him, Gerbier is arrested by the French police and sent to a German prison camp. Soon after he is sent to the Gestapo headquarters, he manages to escape and along with his comrades, goes looking for the traitor. They soon find him and, in one of the film’s most difficult scenes, execute him. He then goes to London to make a deal with his contact named Felix to supply equipment and necessary ammunition for his group. When Felix is soon captured by the Gestapo, Gerbier devises a desperate plan to get him out of there.

The most predominant theme in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville is loyalty. Be it Le Samourai or Bob le flambeur or even his much earlier films like Les enfants terribles, this characteristic is strongly evident in each one of them. His protagonists appear cold and distant, live in the shadows, and strictly adhere to a moral code. They put their trust in select individuals and expect full-fledged loyalty from them. His stories are populated with characters that lead a solitary existence. They stay shut off from the outside world and see it as a necessary and sensible way to live.

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L’Armee des ombres aka Army of Shadows, his film about French resistance fighters during World War-II, is no exception. Based on a novel by author Joseph Kessel, it took Melville 25 years to make his most personal film and to me, his greatest masterpiece. Melville used to work for the resistance in his younger days and drew heavily from his experiences and this shows. The film is strikingly different from the rest of his films. While I admire Le Samourai for it’s cool style and Le Doulos for it’s screenplay and noir trappings, I admire Army of Shadows for it’s ability to evoke strong emotions in me.

Just as with his other films like Le Samourai, Le Doulos and Le Deuxieme souffle, a sombre tone prevails throughout the film and the characters walk around with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. Unlike Hollywood’s superficial depiction of the French resistance or other heroes of World War-II at the time, Melville paints here a bleak and unrelenting picture. The resistance members here are no different from the gangsters in the aforementioned films of his. There is no glorification here.

The characters chose to live their lives in a way that’s different from the rest, one that is dangerous and from which they cannot turn back. They do whatever is necessary to advance their cause and do not hesitate to take out one of their own when they realize that leaving that person alive would sabotage their operations. It is impossible to feel any sort of sympathy for such characters and yet we admire them for their resilience and steely resolve. These are ordinary men and women who wanted to serve a cause that they know would provide no guarantee of a favorable outcome for either of them.

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