by BOB GRIMM & r & & r & Army of Shadows & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & U & lt;/span & nreleased in the United States until last year, this 1969 masterpiece by Jean-Pierre Melville was panned by French critics upon its original release for multiple reasons. Some said that the characters in this story of French Resistance fighters during World War II were presented as gangsters. Others condemned it for glorifying Charles de Gaulle, a controversial figure at the time.
I can report that the characters here are not gangsters. They are, in fact, tragic figures dealing with hardships and betrayals on many levels, with their efforts ultimately resulting in death. Lino Ventura, in a heartbreaking performance, plays Philippe Gerbier, a character partially based on an actual Melville colleague named Pierre-Bloch, who fought the German occupation of 1940-44. The film begins with Gerbier's imprisonment.
After a successful escape attempt, he reunites with other members of the Resistance, including Mathilde (Simone Signoret), an espionage mastermind, and Jean-Fran & ccedil;ois (Jean-Pierre Cassel, father of modern era French star Vincent Cassel). Melville depicts their stories with an understated, monochromatic film that evades bombastic heroics. His characters are tortured mentally and physically, and they will not live to see the glory of their dedication.
That's not to say Melville isn't an exciting filmmaker. A sequence where Gerbier must jump from a plane at night is intense, as is an attempted rescue of an imprisoned member of the Resistance. Another set piece, in which Gerbier faces a firing squad, is masterful filmmaking.
Thanks to Studio Canal (the French production company that restored the film) and Criterion (the American firm that is known for meticulous DVD releases) you can witness this long-forgotten film. From its opening with Nazis parading in France to the final text showing its characters' fates, it's amazing.
And the extras are great, too, especially an illuminating recent interview with actual Army of Shadows cinematographer Pierre Lhomme. Archival featurettes and documentaries, including one examining the final days of German-occupied France, make things very informative. Film historian Ginette Vincendeau provides commentary, and a booklet encapsulating critical excerpts and details on each character rounds out the package.