Army of Shadows

How the hell can the New York Film Critics Circle choose Army of Shadows as the year's best foreign-language film? It's nearly forty years old, a classic thriller of the French Resistance, directed and adapted from Joseph Kessel's 1943 novel by Jean-Pierre Melville, who served in the Resistance himself. Since the film never received a U.S. release till now, it won the prize on a technicality. But you won't protest when you see the film that Rialto Pictures is opening across the country in a striking restoration supervised by cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. The experience is revelatory. Melville (Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge, Bob Le Flambeur), dead since 1973, crafted his masterpiece in Army of Shadows. This tale of conflicting loyalties emerges as tense, profound and eerily prescient. Lino Ventura, his face a mask of resolve to hide his inner trembling, as Philippe Gerbier, a prisoner in a German camp who escapes to rejoin the Resistance movement in France. Melville refuses to truck with myths of heroism and glory. In a scene that grips you like a vise, Gerbier and his colleagues strangle a frightened young man for betraying them. No pounding music, no flashy editing, just the terrible silence of death. At another moment, the resisters work out a plan to kill one of their own, Mathilde (Simone Signoret, beyond superb), before the Gestapo can torture her daughter to make Mathilde talk. From the first sight of German soldiers goose-stepping past the Arc de Triomphe to a postscript that spells out the fate of characters whose moral confusion is all too real, Army of Shadows is a movie of its time — and ours.

From The Archives Issue 301: October 4, 1979