“Army of Shadows” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1969)

In the latter part of his regrettably shortened career [1,2], Jean-Pierre Melville made his great films noir depicting the darkness of the French criminal underworld, including Le Doulos (1962), Le Deuxième Souffle (1966), Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and Un Flic (1972). In the middle of this film-noir sequence, however, was a work that might appear to be an anomaly: his Army of Shadows (L'Armée des Ombres, 1969) about the activities of a French Resistance cell in World War II. Nevertheless, this film, despite its far different setting, is as dark as any of them and fully worthy of the film noir label.

To be sure, Army of Shadow’s historical background combined with its noirish atmosphere probably confused critics and the public at the time of its release in 1969.  This was, after all, in the aftermath of the 1968 French student protests, and the leftward-leaning critical fraternity, led by Cahiers du Cinema magazine, erroneously dismissed the film as “Gaullist film art” [3], as if the film was primarily a celebration of the WWII French Resistance under de Gaulle.  In my view the film is just the opposite – it is one of the more disturbing antiwar films that I have seen.  Nevertheless with its poor critical reception, the film was not widely distributed, and it was not released in the US until 2006, at which time it experienced a critical renaissance and was showered with plaudits [4,5,6].  Today many people consider it to be Melville’s greatest work.

One reason for this is probably that the film certainly is a very personal work. For one thing, the events in the film are drawn from Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel Army of Shadows, which was a fictionalized account of Kessel’s own experiences in the Resistance.  Then Melville added the perspective from his own personal experiences, since he had been drafted into the French army in 1937 and had served in both the Resistance (operating inside occupied France) and later in the Free French Forces (combating German forces from outside France) [7]. However, even though the action shown in the film is inspired by real events and recollections, Melville did not want  to make a historical treatise.  He was surveying his own memories from a distance of twenty-five years.  As he remarked [7],
“I had no intention of making a film about the Resistance.  So I removed all realism. . . “. 
And his memories of those times were clearly draped in the dark noirish shadows of those desperate circumstances.  In any case Melville had the right idea about  movies [8]:
“A film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact recreation of it.”
In fact films reflect our nightmares as much as dreams.

As I have discussed elsewhere, particularly in my review of Le Doulos, film noir narratives have three key features:
  • Fatalism – Most of the characters have pasts they want to forget (and are unknown to the viewer) and no hopeful futures.
  • Truth – Everyone is lying or hiding something, and the truth is invariably elusive.
  • Loyalty – Given the ubiquity of deceit, loyalty is the most prized virtue, and once loyalty is sworn, disloyalty is the ultimate sin.
Many people may expect these features in a story about gangsters, but perhaps not in war films, especially not in the so-called “good war” of World War II.  But these three elements are continually evident in  Army of Shadows.  Of course, there is no such thing as a good war, and the real experiences of people in war are probably closer to the categories of film noir than people realize.  Certainly the picture Melville presents of the Resistance fighters trying to survive inside a Nazi-controlled France is full of the darkest despair.  It primarily suggests to me that the struggle to survive can drain the humanity from people and turn them into killing machines.  This is why Army of Shadows reminded me of another great antiwar film that was released at about the same time – Miklos Jancsó’s The Red and the White (1967).

The story of Army of Shadows passes through six narrative segments concerning a French Resistance cell operating in 1942 in the south of France (which was for most of that time still nominally controlled by the Vichy government).  In most of these segments, there isn’t much action or heroism.  We merely see the Resistance operatives desperately struggling to escape their German predators, the Gestapo.  Almost from the beginning we know that the noirish sword of doom hangs over all of them and that they are unlikely to survive.

1.  Gerbier Escapes
It is 22 October 1941, and Philippe Gerbier (played by Lino Ventura) is put in confinement at a Vichy-controlled concentration camp. Gerbier, we will later learn, heads a small cell of Resistance men operating out of Marseilles and Lyon. Ventura, as he did earlier in Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle, presents an interesting persona. His thickset physique is far from glamorous for a film protagonist, but he is clearly vigorous, alert, and reflectively aware of his surroundings at all times. His generally soft-spoken demeanor, accompanied by wry smiles of agreement, belies a capability of violent and brutal eruptions. In general he embodies a kind of an action everyman that gives a visceral touch to Melville’s films.

Gerbier quickly works out an escape plan with a fellow inmate, who is a communist.  But before they can carry out the plan, he is reassigned to another, more fearsome, prison in German-occupied territory.  Upon arriving at the prison and just inside the prison’s doorway Gerbier suddenly kills a sentry on duty by snatching the sentry’s own knife and stabbing him in the neck, and then he somehow manages to flee out onto the street.  He escapes his pursuers by quickly ducking into a barbershop and getting a shave from a complicit barber.   Gerbier has escaped, but just like the first sequence in Le Deuxième Souffle, Ventura’s heavy-breathing and unlikely getaway seem so desperate and improbable that it sets a gloomy pall over the rest of the story.  We get the feeling that his days must be numbered.

2.  Execution of a Comrade
Sometime later, Gerbier is now sporting a mustache and back working with the agents under his command: Claude “Le Masque” (Claude Mann),  Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), and Guillaume “Le Bison” (Christian Barbier).  Gerbier has given them all the task of executing a fellow agent, Paul Dounat, for having given up secrets to the Gestapo and thereby betraying Gerbier (there is no further backstory about Dounat). This is an excruciating sequence, because Dounat is a young man barely out of his teens and totally submissive.  It is later revealed that noone can withstand the unbearable Gestapo torture, and prisoners would readily commit suicide but are prevented from doing so.  Dounat seems like an innocent lamb to the slaughter, and the point of killing him seems pointless except to make him pay.  Nevertheless, Gerbier and his men ponder how to kill their victim without making any noise.  They eventually opt for strangulation and mercilessly carry it out.  If the first segment emphasized fatalism, this one shows the dark side of (dis)loyalty.

3. Wider Circles and a Trip to London
Things turn a little brighter in the third segment.  Felix runs into an old friend, Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and recruits him into the Resistance. Jean-Francois is quickly given an assignment to go to Paris, and there he meets another key agent, Mathilde (Simone Signoret). Before returning to Marseille, he pays a quick visit to his older brother, Luc (Paul Meurisse), who is an esteemed, but unworldly, mathematical philosopher. 

Back in Marseilles, Gerbier organizes his team, now including Jean-Francois, to shepherd two passengers onto an allied submarine bound for London.  It turns out that the two passengers are Gerbier himself and Luc Jardie, the academic, who is now revealed (only to us – not to Gerbier’s cell and not even to his brother, Jean-Francois) as actually the big chief of all the on-the-ground Resistance operations. 

In London, Gerbier and Luc Jardie can relax a little, and they briefly meet Charles de Gaulle, who awards Luc Jardie with some kind of medal of honor.  However, Gerbier is exposed to another side of the war not seen in France – air raids.  He is amazed to duck into a dance party among young service personnel who are evidently used to and unmindful of the bombs dropping outside their window. But Gerbier gets news that back in France Felix has been arrested by the Gestapo.  So he rushes back to Lyon.

4.  To Rescue Felix
Mathilde quickly shifts down to Lyon to take Felix’s place as Gerbier’s right-hand operative, and she proves to be invaluable.  When the always ruthless Gerbier suggests that they plan to somehow kill Felix before he yields to torture-induced confessions, Mathilde reveals that she has a clever plan to rescue Felix.  As they make preparations, Jean-Francois, unbeknownst to his fellow agents, gets himself arrested by the Gestapo so that he can facilitate the rescue from the inside.
Mathilde’s plan involves disguising herself and two aids as German medics, and they con their way inside the Gestapo facility.  But it is too late. Mathilde learns that Felix is already dying from the torture, and she is barely able to abort their mission and escape from the prison. Jean-Francois is left inside with only his cyanide pill to save him from his own torture.

5.  To Rescue Gerbier
Now it is Gerbier’s turn to get arrested by the Gestapo.  He is about to be executed by a sadistically conceived firing squad, when Mathilde comes up with another ingenious plan and stages a miraculous rescue – this time successfully. 

6.  Another Payoff
This final segment is the grimmest of them all and serves as a fit culmination of the nihilistic world depicted in this film.  It subscribes to the inhuman logic of what war is: a massive-scale death machine.  You need to see this sequence yourself, without foreknowledge, in order to feel the existential desolation that is generated.

Melville set out to make a faithful film of Kessel’s novel, and he does include most of the events in the novel.  But the film’s overall tone faithfully adheres to his own grim take on film noir.  Fatalism is the key.  At one point Gerbier in voiceover ruminates on his own interior existential view of hope and the denial of death,
“It’s impossible not to be afraid of dying.  But I’m too stubborn, too much of an animal to believe it. If I don’t believe it to the last moment, to the very last split second, I'll never die. What a revelation.  The chief would love it.”
But Gerbier’s acceptance of the war ethic results in his never hesitating to issue death condemnations for others  – for whomever it suits his schemes   When he is on the exterior side, death for others is readily prescribed.

And truth is always elusive. Jean-Francois never does know that his own brother is the big chief of the organization he serves. Moreover, Jean-Francois’s heroic self-sacrifice is never known to others, and he dies a presumed traitor. Mathilde’s Resistance life is unknown even to her husband and teenage daughter. What went on in Mathilde’s mind at the end is also unknowable.

Warmongers always invoke patriotism and try to drum into youthful minds notions of loyalty – not loyalty to love, compassion, and human values – but to the demands of reductionist and doctrinaire militancy.  Army of Shadows shows that side of it.

  1. Jean-Pierre Melville died of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of fifty-five.
  2. For more on Melville's career, see: Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), “Conversations About Great Films: Army of Shadows/L’Armée des Ombres”, Goldenrod Handouts, Buffalo Film Seminars, XV:6, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York.
  3. J. Hoberman, “Fog of War”, The Village Voice, (18 April 2006).
  4. Amy Taubin, “Out of the Shadows”, The Criterion Collection, (11 January 2011).
  5. Robert O. Paxton, “Melville’s French Resistance”, The Criterion Collection, (11 January 2011).
  6. Roger Ebert, “Army of Shadows”, RogerEbert.com, (21 May 2006).
  7. Rui Nogueira, “Melville on Melville: Army of Shadows”, Army of Shadows, The Criterion Collection, pp. 30-40.
  8. World Film Directors, Vol. II., John Wakeman (ed.), Wilson, co., NY 1988, quoted in “Conversations About Great Films: Army of Shadows/L’Armée des Ombres”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Buffalo Film Seminars, XV:6, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (2 October 2007).

1 comment:

Bookhound said...

Thanks for reminding me of "Armee des Ombres". I loved it when I first saw it - on TV I think sometime in the '80s or '90s. Funnily enough, it reminded me at the time of something else, but I hadn't realised it was based on the Kessel novel. The ending is as chilling and noir as they come.