Jean-Pierre Melville made three war films, but is probably best known for his gangster movies such as Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos. The cracking Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres), still has something of the gangster flick about it despite being set during the Second World War.
The most obvious gangster element in Army of Shadows is the outfits. Trilbies and macs are everywhere. All of Melville’s films are filled with Sam Spade outfitted types, in fact he loved the look so much he called his 1962 film Le Doulos, a French word for hat (as well as police informer). This look is not too surprising when we consider the film is set during the 1940s, the golden age of the style, but the gangsterishness extends to the plot and characters too.
The film follows a group of French Resistance fighters – men who operate outside the law (even if those laws are Nazi) but who are still governed by strict codes, just as the mafia are. However, these men spend most of their time trying not to be killed, rather than trying to kill their enemy. Initially Melville doesn’t give much away about what exactly they are planning, instead he conjures compelling atmospheres.
The film is austere. Despite being about people fighting for their lives the action does not flash by in a torrent of thrills or emotion, instead Melville lingers on his characters’ isolation and tough moral choices. They are men and women of few words, but there is no doubt they are grappling with tumultuous emotions. This cool atmosphere (in both senses of the word) even extends to a distinctive grey-blue colouring: part Samuel Beckett set, part shabby chic Shoreditch bar.
Music is sparse, the pace unhurried which gives the whole film room to breathe. Unexpected and eccentric details add to the overall richness. Particular delights include the stillness of a walk around war-time London and seeing dancers during an air raid, plus a conversation with an eccentric aristocrat at his chateau.
The chief protagonist is Philippe Gerbier, played by Lino Ventura, one of the greats of post-war French film, who had previously worked with Melville on Le Deuxième Souffle. He is a great hulk of a man, whose mournful expression perfectly captures the fatalism that is central to Melville’s films – and the attitudes of most resistance fighters no doubt. In fine Sam Spade style, Gerbier also gives voice to his existential musings in a voice over.
Ventura is not the only significant talent in the film. The great Simone Signoret is Mathilde is the steely to the core and has possibly the biggest reputation of anyone in the cell. Jean-Pierre Cassel (Vincent Cassel’s dad) is Jean-François, a handsome young man of uncertain motives. Forsaking the trilby for a bowler, a cadaverous Paul Crauchet plays stoic Félix Lepercq, Gerbier’s right hand man. Gradually, a plot of sorts coalesces out of the murk, or at least we get to know each of these individuals.
Army of Shadows was Melville’s most personal film. He had joined the French resistance during the war, and like Gerbier, sought asylum in London. Indeed many of the characters and incidents in the film are based on true stories. His real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach, the son of Jews from Alsace. Just as two characters in Army of Shadows are known by their code names, Le Bison and Le Masque, he adopted the name of his favourite writer, and continued to use it until he died.
After the war Melville found it impossible to break into the film industry, so he started his own Studio Jenner and made films his way. Although Bob Le Flambeur (1956) is sometimes thought of as a precursor to the Nouvelle Vague films (it used hand held cameras and a single jump cut), Melville’s politics were rather different from the lefty Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. He considered himself an anarchist individualist. According to French critic, Jean-Michel Frodon, the film is an allegory for the way Melville felt about the way he made movies: undercover and outside the mainstream.
During Gerbier’s stay in London he sees General de Gaulle. This small, apparently insignificant, episode accounts for the relative obscurity of Army of Shadows. General de Gaulle was hated by the French intelligentsia as the betrayer of the événements of 1968 and thus the film was poorly reviewed and not widely distributed outside France. It is now regarded as one of the best films of the Sixties. It is definitely worth watching and not just for making rain coats and trilbies look as good as they’ve ever looked.
The digitally restored Blu Ray release of Army of Shadows is released on Monday 8 April, 2013. Extras include a one hour documentary extra Army of Shadows – The Hidden Side of the Story.