The director calibrates the tension, engineers its release, then does it once again in an exquisitely loaded scene between a Vichy barber and a customer, each playing at normalcy during insanity.
Army of Shadows reveals the rest of Gerbier's shadowy group with the offhand vibe of a chat with the local gendarme, and they're more a gang than an army, including the stalwart Felix (Paul Crauchet); former Legionnaire Le Bison (Christian Barbier); the quivering Le Masque (Claude Mann); the boldly heroic, Marianne-like Mathilde (Simone Signoret, portraying a loosely sketched Lucie Aubrac); playboy Jean François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel); and network chief, Jardie's seemingly ivory-tower intellectual, deep-undercover brother, Luc (Paul Meurisse as a Jean Moulin figure). We find ourselves less in a traditional war film than embroiled in a tangle of arduous trips to England to visit a sequestered Charles de Gaulle, sudden arrests, subsequent betrayals, and then methodical hits, executed by the underground fighters, who operate under a code as rigid as any other gangster's in Melville's Guyville.
In an interview for the book Melville on Melville, the director bristled when he was reminded that some French critics equated the Resistants with thugs. Still, anyone familiar with Melville's films will recognize the fighters' toughened miens, accustomed to operating outside the law and the feeling of dread at having to strangle a onetime compatriot quietly with one's bare hands (when a previously arranged killing floor is now a few audible steps away from crying babes and frolicking schoolchildren). The dread here emerges from the fact that these ordinary citizens are compelled to commit both heroic and horrific acts: much like the jitterbuggers at the USO canteen that Gerbier crashes during a brief trip to England, these underground fighters otherwise known as "terrorists" to the Nazis are caught in an exhilarating and ultimately tragic tango with their occupiers.
Melville's underground fighters resemble thugs because they're operating in a similar mise-en-scène at the fringes of their occupied country's laws. "A lot of people would have to be dead before one could make a true film about the Resistance and about Jean Moulin," the director told writer Rui Nogueira. "Don't forget that there are more people who didn't work for the Resistance than people who did." Nonetheless, Melville never shies away from his truth, gazing at the foes and fighters with equanimity, as when Gerbier confesses that his only love is for the chief, is forced to run from a Nazi machine-gun firing squad, and orders the death of a deputy who succumbed to weakness.
Though Melville's cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who supervised the 2004 digital restoration of the film, did a remarkable job recreating the film's steely blue, brown, and gray palette, it's the sound design that stands out today for example, the rush of the ocean as Gerbier and Felix march a traitor down a small seaside town's cobbled streets to his death. Wheels, motors, and heels clank like that dread old mechanism, the march toward denouement, a.k.a. death, found in any noirish plot. "You in a car of killers," Gerbier sighs, regarding his beloved boss at Army of Shadows's close, one that reduced Kessler to tears when he read the biting coda added by the filmmaker. "Is nothing sacred anymore?" Melville achieved a sense of closure in making Army, certainly and it rings true to his sense of manly fatalism like the clang of a cell door. (Kimberly Chun)
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