I am beginning to realizes from a personal and very internalized view of the world, I am most struck by the cinematic stylings of Jean-Pierre Melville. While the subjects of his films may not always prove the most ideal of characters, the visually unique world with which Melville creates for his characters to inhabit is something I find highly relatable. The cinematic world of Melville is one that is both crisp and visually evocative, while also managing to be washed out and dreary, reflecting the alientation and detachment of Camus in filmic form. While many would find the color palette of a Melville film ugly and lacking in serenity, I would strongly contest that the alienation which results from such bleak mis-en-scenes is quite honest and very realized, evidenced both in his work Army of Shadows, as well as his more hip and well-received works like the infinitely cool Le Samourai. Army of Shadows is a particularly noteworthy film in the well-established canon of Melville films not because it is his best per se, but because for nearly half a century, it went unwatched and dismissed as a severe misstep in the director's career, almost entirely the result of a bad review from the then highly influential Cahiers Du Cinema. The critics found the highly political nature of the film to be far too overbearing and, more importantly, against their own political stances, which always wound their way into the reviews of this particular group of critics. Yet, when the same journal revisited the film decades later they instantly realized their own mistake, holding it up as an unacknowledged masterpiece of its own time, as well as being one of the most poignant and well-executed commentaries on the nature of the human psyche during wartime both within and outside the confines of the prisons of warfare. Melville fills the film with everything that one demands from a work with such gravitas: great actors, highly symmetrical cinematography and a noticeable degree of the stylized to make it transcend the inevitable political leanings that such a controversial subject is bound to pursue. The result of the care for his cinematic offering is nothing short of marvelous and the fact that this film not only remains highly relevant, but rose from the grave to a second life speaks to the power of both Melville as a filmmaker, as well as the life that cinema with a real message obtains well after its initial arrival.
Army of Shadows with its subtly epic narrative manages to focus on the experiences of one highly influential man during the German occupation of France in 1942, right at the heart of World War II. The man is Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) a leading member of he resistance who has recently been arrested by SS troops occupying French Vichy and is to be sent to the Nazi headquarters from heavy handed interrogation. Using his guile and quick wits, Gerbier is able to escape from imprisonment and get right back to work on his work pushing the resistance forwards, wherein his first task is to kill of one of the resistance members who has become a German informant. Gerbier recruits a set of his best men to undertake the task at one of their safe houses, only to discover that none of his men have the audacity to kill their own men, even if it is known that they have betrayed them, this results in Gerbier undertaking a strangling himself, setting into motion a very clear vision on his part to push forward the resistance by any means necessary. Gerbier, though a chance encounter at a bar, recruits new members to his cause in the debonaire young pilot Jean-Francoise Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), as well as the devilishly cunning housewife Mathilde (Simone Signoret). Jardie, specifically, becomes one of the main network members for Gerber, meeting with his own brother Luc (Paul Meurisse) who is also heavily involved in the resistance himself, forming a relationship with Gerbier in the process. The film then takes viewers on a set of missions and attempted prison breaks, most of which fail. It is not until Gerbier breaks into prison with the intent to break out resistance members that things begin to look up, particularly when a seemingly impossible escape planned during an execution takes effect and the members are freed. The farther into the war the members get, the more difficult it is to keep their activities secretive and when it becomes a realization that the groups members are betraying one another for the safety of their respective families, Gerbier undertakes a purging of the resistance to return it to its ultimate focus. Many of these killings go over without a hitch, but it is not until he demands that they kill Mathilde who has betrayed them for the safety of her daughter that things become murky, eventually having to undertake the task himself. After shooting Mathilde in the street, the film cuts to close-up shots of the remaining members of the resistance and, subsequently, explains how they each ultimately died.
War movies often handle death in a very real manner, showing its excesses and inconceivable repetition, particularly in works like Saving Private Ryan and Platoon. However, even when this death is shown in great detail and with earnest concern, a certain degree of glorification and celebration comes with it, because viewers are reminded that the ultimate goal was achieved, even at the cost of thousands of sacrifices. In Army of Shadows the same sort of entrenched comfort is far from available. From the very first death of the film, one that comes from assumedly natural causes, viewers are provided stark shots, none of the glorification of death that comes from other war movies, a distancing that is only doubled by the awareness that this loss could have been prevented were the guards willing to help the dying man, and while this is a serene death, the later stabbing of a Nazi soldier in the throat by Gerbier to assure his escape is so jarring and out of place that it strikes a viewer as unnecessary, even though it is well-established that any one of these soldiers would have easily killed Gerbier if he were to run away. It becomes then a larger commentary on the very "kill-or-be-killed" nature of war itself, so much so that the members of the resistance realize that the passing of their allies, in some cases, means their future safety. Take for example the bruised and beaten men with whom Gerbier is trying to save. One is beaten to such a pulp (by the way the makeup for these moments is excellent, if not disturbing) that the other offers him a cyanide pill to firstly take him out of his suffering, but offering the second benefit of no longer having to worry for his transport should a chance for escape come about. It is killing with mercy and self-concern simultaneously and Melville shines his muted light upon all its hypocrisy with such a keen eye that one realizes why any viewer of the era would have been hesitant to praise its narrative, a fact that is certainly driven home by Gerbier who is easily one of the most problematic and troubling characters in all of cinema history. While he is primarily to be understood for his concern for the movement and for an unoccupied France, it is made clear throughout that he is also, ultimately, concerned with his own survival. Moments like him hesitating to jump out of a plane, or failing to stand stoically as a Nazi officer makes a moving target out of him, suggest that all the idealism Gerbier spouts is fine and well, but in essence, it betrays the fact that during war he is just as prone to human flaws as any other person. In Melville's world there is no right and wrong side to war, especially one that takes such an indifferent stance on human life.
Key Scene: The initial escape from interrogation to hiding in a barber shop by Gerbier sets up the films pace and sort of seedy navigation through deception and is only one of the many perfect moments in the film.
This is a Criterion disc that has, unfortunately, gone out of print. However, it was relatively recently so the bluray is not terribly expensive. I would suggest grabbing a copy if only for investment purposes.