Dark days indeed

Melville's Army of Shadows

French noir rarely darkened, deepened, or explored more nuanced shades of gray and shadow than in the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. From his breakthrough gangster ode, Bob le Flambeur (1955), through 1962's underrated Le Doulos to the trio that put Alain Delon's icy beauty to proper use, Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and Un Flic (1972), Melville infused the genre with a rigorous, formal power while simultaneously shooting quickly, stylishly, and on location. In the process he inspired new wavers–to–come with his resourceful quasi-vérité derring-do.

Yet not all of the director's films were caper exercises: Melville started his career with a 1950 collaboration with Jean Cocteau, Les Enfants Terribles — World War II loomed large over the onetime Resistance fighter's imagination. Joseph Kessel's Army of Shadows was the book he waited to shoot for 25 years after discovering it in 1943, and in 1969 the filmmaker applied his eminently masculinized brand of hard-boiled cool as well as his compelling yet oppressive sense of landscape and character — and their interplay — to the text. The stunningly beautiful and shockingly poignant product finally saw its release in the States last year, and it says as much about Melville, his cold dreamscapes, and his idealistic though traumatized response to war (and resistance) as perhaps The Big Red One, Battle Royale, and even Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! might say about the works of kindred battle-scarred directors Sam Fuller, Kinji Fukasaku, and Russ Meyer, respectively. Here Melville, who later told an interviewer he never intended to make a film about the Resistance, and Kessel — also the author of that psychosexual romp into the subconscious of an immaculate bourgeois, Belle du Jour — use wartime experiences the director later described as "awful, horrible ... and marvelous" to illustrate a piercingly conflicted existential love letter to the past that fellow Resistant Albert Camus could have signed off on.

The past, as it turns out, was both enthralling and dreadful. Melville's camera almost vibrates with the morose shock value of Army of Shadows's opening long shot: German troops filing through — or defiling — the Champs-Élysées. From there Melville jumps to a van carrying a gendarme and a dark figure in spectacles, and the cop personably remarks on the convenience of their concentration camp destination and how it can now be used to house prisoners of France's Nazi occupiers — until he spies the handcuffs on his traveling companion and catches himself. The viewer is pulled into the deceptively friendly scene, lulled by the bland banality of evil — and French complicity — while Melville continues swinging between points of view, from the soft gray matter of the forgetful cop to the blunt-object reverie of a French concentration camp commander dealing with the other man in the vehicle: Resistance leader and civil engineer Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura).

The director finally settles mainly in the mind of Gerbier, who, as played by onetime wrestler Ventura, can't shake an antihero veneer despite his upper-crusty suits. The watchful Gerbier bides his time in the camp, gauges the prisoner demographic makeup, and begins to hatch an escape plan with a young Communist, until he's suddenly summoned to the area's Nazi headquarters. His act of daring there — based on a story told to Melville by a Gaullist deputy — almost leaps off the screen.

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