Army of Shadows (L’Armée des Ombres, 1969)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, a man described as the god-father of modern French New-wave cinema, the movie without doubt deserves the title of “Classic”. Why so? Watching the movie you see how it has influenced the art of film making since then – and you get completly drawn in to the story being told.

Set in France during World War Two, it tells the story of Philippe Gerbier (played in a brilliently calm and understated way by Lino Ventura), originally an engineer who is now a senior member of the Resistance. We see the resistance as a small group of people who must be weary of their fellow citizens, the people they fight for, in order to avoid capture and death.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the film is the lack of actual physical warfare. Typical of European and indeed French cinema; there is much effort devoted to characterisation and mood. Rather than take away from the end product this very much adds to it. The first acts of the movie show us a careful thinking man capable of sizing up those around him and choosing just who to interact with.  The scene at Gestapo headquarters  or the activities in Marseilles show us a cool calm thinking man not given to panic.

You could argue that “Shadows” was itself influenced by Roma, Citáa Aperta (Rome Open City, 1944) by Giorgio Summary and there is nothing wrong with that, but it is still stylistically novel in its own right. The camerawork after the escape from the Parisian Gestapo HQ shows him running down empty Parisian streets with the flowing camera shots is now a typical element of new-wave  cinema.

Melville is able to show cinematic humour, the camera-work at the train station as he arrives and waits, build up suspense but the single spanning shot that follows him to his seat. Does he disappear behind the passing train?

We see the dual roles of people, quite and quiet ordinary people on the outside and heroes fighting with their lives for what they believe in.  But these are not self-important egos, these are people who believe in what they are doing and risk all.

One thing you don’t see a lot of is trooping German soldiers, but you get the danger and suspense. The London scenes in the sub-urban street and the ad-hoc night club during the bombing raid show how a hero in one setting can be like a fish out of water in another. There are many types of bravery.

Melville and Joseph Kessel (who wrote the original novel) were both Resistance members and you can’t but feel they transferred the impact of those experiences to this work.

Rating 9/10

Watch other Melville offerings like Un Flic (The Cop, 1972) or Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle, 1970) to see how movies can quietly build to a crescendo.

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