When L'Armée des ombres (Army in the Shadows) opens, we are immediately struck by Jean-Pierre Melville's style: the blue-grey colours that also dominate the Alain Delon-starred Le Samuraï (1967), the minimalist, elegant and unmistakably Gallic mise-en-scene and the references to the American gangster movie genre. For Melville, like his New Wave successors, loved 1940s American film and Army in the Shadows, as a film about a resistance group during WW2, certainly pays homage to American cinema as a symbol of liberation (how times have changed!). Traditionally the French have shown a knack for appropriating American genre conventions, then slow down the pace of the narrative and elevate it to something approaching highbrow status.
Based on Joseph Kessel's war-time novel, but also drawing on Melville's own memories of the Underground, the film starts with a one-minute sequence showing the Wehrmacht marching down the Champs Elysées. The screen projects a sombre spectre and draws us into this cold, semi-monochromatic world of wartime espionage and resistance. Despite the bleakness, Melville made it incredibly attractive to look at.
However, the success of this long, slow film is mainly due to the cast: Lino Ventura tops the bill with his laconic and swift Philippe Gerbier, the leader of an Underground network. Simone Signoret's Mathilde, the only feminine presence in this otherwise purposefully masculine film (like most of Melville's films, where women exist on the periphery), is the most memorable presence, though, perhaps due to her 'lonely female' standing in the narrative, but also due to her charisma, the intellectual aura of her acting skills and her left-wing star persona that infuses her resistance character with extra pathos and morality.
Originally released in September 1969 around the time of the commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Paris, this melancholy, downbeat story is less about heroism and more about the relationships within the group, their liaisons and the moral decisions that they have to make. Their bravery and cold-bloodedness is quite something to watch. In line with Melville's controlled style, this is a film that requires great attention to detail, but the effort is continuously rewarded. Also, the fact that it is a film hinged on a historic moment freed the director from having to build up a narrative towards a resolution since that is provided by life. We know from the beginning, from the terrifying marching scene, that the world is damned and that things will not turn out well.
The film is pervaded by a fatalistic sentiment, even during the 'action' sequences such as the heist segment when the resistance disguise as German Red Cross to get into German quarters for a rescue operation that turns out to be futile, the airplane/parachute scenes and Gerbier's rescue from prison. The expressionist look of the film serves a story that is less concerned about historic details than it is with the banality of the war and the tragedy that befalls all the characters. Stylisation leads to abstraction and the effect is altogether more moving and hard-hitting. Melville's originality of vision combined with controlled performances and dense atmosphere form a film which is highly coherent aesthetically, making for a devastatingly moving experience.
Army in the Shadows is showing in several venues across London and the UK until 25 May.