Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Army of Shadows (1969) - Wrongfully Shelved

On the Menu: Army of Shadows (1969); Criterion Collection

Ingredients: Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet and Christian Barbier. Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Run time: 145 minutes. Rated: Not rated.

At First Bite: After watching FLAME AND CITRON (a film about the Danish Resistance during World War II) not too long ago, I read up on the movie and found out that ARMY OF SHADOWS was a big inspiration for the movie. I hadn't heard of ARMY OF SHADOWS before, but I thought Melville's LE CERCLE ROUGE was brilliant (having watched it back in October 2005).

The movie follows a small group of a Resistance network in Nazi-occupied France during WWII. Its leader is Philippe Gerbier (Ventura), and he spends most of the film just trying not to get caught by the police. His companions, Félix (Crauchet), Le Bison (Barbier), Le Masque (Mann), Jean-François (Cassel) and Mathilde (Signoret), do likewise.

When someone does get caught, then the group must figure out a way to break him/her out. The group must also, no matter how agonizing it seems, deal with those who betray them.

Second Helping: My second viewing of this Criterion DVD was accompanied by commentary from film historian, and author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, Ginette Vincendeau. She breaks down some of the scenes and themes, makes comparisons to Melville's other films and provides some historical background.

Tough to Swallow: There were two things I noticed that kinda took me out of the film (even if just for a second or two). The first was in the beginning of the movie when Gerbier is being transported by the French police. It's raining, but the rain doesn't cover the entire shot. The manufactured rain seems to follow the police vehicle. The second moment is when Jean-François sits down to write a letter. A wipe occurs as he begins to write, transitioning to the point where he puts the pen down. So, the actual writing of the letter is skipped over, which doesn't really make sense and is visually disturbing.

Oh, and I spent the whole movie thinking Ventura looked like a mix of Peter Sellers and Robert De Niro. That's not a bad thing, but it was distracting at times. 

Something to Chew On: ARMY OF SHADOWS is the film adaptation of the 1943 Joseph Kessel novel of the same name. Melville was a member of the Resistance, and this is his 3rd and final film dealing with the German occupation of France. THE SILENCE OF THE SEA and LEON MORIN, PRIEST are the two others.

The opening of the film where German soldiers are marching down the Champs-Élysées was originally at the end of the film. Melville made the change after the film's first showings.

The film premiered in France on September 12, 1969, but it was denounced by French critics for glorifying Charles de Gaulle. Since the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma felt the same way, the film wasn't released in the United States. The magazine re-evaluated the film in the mid-1990s, and it was restored and finally released in the States in 2006.

Meurisse and Signoret both starred in LES DIABOLIQUES, which, I think, is one of the freakiest horror films of all-time.

Jean-Pierre Cassel is the father of actor Vincent Cassel, who was almost 3 years old when ARMY OF SHADOWS was filmed.

The film currently has a 8.1 user rating on (5,009 votes).

Sides: The Criterion edition is a 2-disc set, but only the first disc is offered by Blockbuster Total Access.

Disc One includes the aforementioned commentary and two versions of the trailer. 

Disc Two provides interviews with Pierre Lhomme (director of photography) and Françoise Bonnot (editor) and on-set footage featuring Melville, Kessel, the cast and real Resistance fighters. A short documentary on the final days of the German occupation, and a short program on Melville and the film are also on the second disc.

Aftertaste: ARMY OF SHADOWS is pretty minimalistic when it comes to action and dialogue, and focuses more on the dirty jobs of the Resistance fighters. Relationships are based on loyalty and trust. Each of the characters is dealing with paranoia, anxiety, desperation, fear of death and the ethical/moral dilemmas of having to kill one of their own. It's not a typical war film. It's a tragedy. In war, death is imminent and chasing you around every corner.

Another thing I found interesting was the look of the film. Its blue/gray color scheme reiterates the bleakness of German-occupied France (those years were actually known as the Dark Years). Sunlight and vivid colors are used for places like Marseilles (free zone) and London.

I said before that this isn't a typical war film. Honestly, sometimes it seems more like a mob/gangster movie. There are Resistance fighters waiting in getaway cars. There are Nazis in trench coats. There are even drive-by shootings. I guess it makes sense because ARMY OF SHADOWS is sandwiched between four gangster films at the end of Melville's filmography.

The movie is gritty, heroic and real, and it makes the Resistance out to be more intellectual than political. Tell that to the critics who put the movie on the shelf for nearly 40 years.


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