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Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection (1969)

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A grim, austere masterpiece of the French resistance, by Jean-Pierre Melville

  • Apr 15, 2011
"...but I'm going to die and I'm not afraid. It's impossible not to be afraid of dying. But I'm too stubborn, too much of an animal to believe it. If I don't believe it to the very last moment, the last split second, I'll never die."
This is Philippe Gerbier speaking. The time is between October, 1942 and February, 1943. He's the leader of a resistance cell in German-occupied France. He was an engineer. Now he is a hard man of skeptical intelligence. He kills a German guard with a knife to the throat so quickly and so unexpectedly it's nerve rattling.
In Jean-Pierre Melville's austere, somber Army of Shadows, we follow what happens to Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and a handful of others, primarily Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a weak-seeming intellectual who turns out to be the head of resistance in France; Jean François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Luc Jardie's younger brother; and the remarkable Mathilde (Simone Signoret), resourceful with icy nerves, a woman, Gerbier tells us, who is "strong-willed, methodical and patient. She knows both how to command and how to carry out orders." For four months we watch them operating in a claustrophobic environment of matter-of-fact violence, the realities of betrayal, hiding and planning, a life without humor and only cautious trust, and above all else, the goal of killing Germans. That also means the need to kill informers, no matter how young or how respected. They will all probably die.
The movie is a series of incidents that happen during these four months and how this group must respond: a prison camp and an escape, a shave from a barber who might be a Petainist, the killing of a young informer in an empty house when three of the resistance, including Gerbier, discover they cannot use a gun, there is no knife and finally they decide to use a towel to strangle the man. All the while, gagged and tied, the informer can hear them discuss the problem. This will be the first time any of the three have ever killed a man, and they do it. There's Mathilde's nerve in smuggling a radio through a German cordon, and her attempt to rescue a Resistance comrade from a prison where he has been tortured. There's the death of one of the four, carried out by three. Briefly, at the very end, we read of what happened to the members of this group...a cyanide pill, a beheading, tortured to death, survived. The ending is logical and incredibly sad.
One of the most effective aspects of this movie is how it concentrates on this small group of people. There are no explosions, gun fights, beatings and torture scenes, no gore, no bravado. In fact, there are comparatively few Germans. What there is is the unremitting pressure of discovery, of making a mistake, of tension, of never being able to relax. All the main characters were based on members of the French resistance. The actors are excellent. Lino Ventura dominates his scenes. Signoret is incredible.
This is tragedy, not melodrama, says Amy Taubin, author of an article which appears in the Criterion booklet. When that last note on the screen is finished, we feel exhausted. We have to remind ourselves that the right side won. Otherwise, I, at least, would feel not just respect for these men and women, but also deeply pessimistic. We've gotten to know them. Not to like them; they are too grim and dedicated for that, but to understand them, to a degree. We know that if they had never existed there would have been others in their place. But I came to understand that I probably would never have had the fatalism or the nerves, much less the courage, to undertake what they did. 
A grim, austere masterpiece of the French resistance, by Jean-Pierre Melville A grim, austere masterpiece of the French resistance, by Jean-Pierre Melville A grim, austere masterpiece of the French resistance, by Jean-Pierre Melville A grim, austere masterpiece of the French resistance, by Jean-Pierre Melville

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April 15, 2011
This was such a psychological experience. Thanks!
More Army of Shadows - Criterion Co... reviews
review by . October 13, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
The Army of Shadows (released in 1969, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville) is, off the top of my current head, unique. The film’s engine is a plot that relies on the audience knowing a good amount of history but the fuel that keeps it going are the performances. The actors are stone-faced throughout; they do a good job of expressing anxiety and fear through body language, but their faces almost never show what is really happening. The Army of Shadows is the best film I have seen in months and …
review by . May 16, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
Director Jean-Pierre Melville drew from his own experiences of The French Resistance during World War II to make the same-titled novel into an inspired movie. Capturing the gamut of participants and demonstrating that not all of the French were on board, 'Army of Shadows' zeroes in on some of the more effective players who must operate with nerves of steel to sneak around, outfox, and escape from their German occupiers and undermine their influence.     Protagonist Phillippe …
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C. O. DeRiemer ()
Ranked #32
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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Who would've guessed that the best film of 2006 would be a 37-year-old thriller about the French Resistance during World War II? Hailed as a masterpiece by an overwhelming majority of reputable critics, Jean-Pierre Melville'sArmy of Shadowswasn't officially released in America until 2006 (hence its appearance on many of that year's top-ten lists), but its reputation as a French classic was already well-established throughout Europe. Fully restored in 2004 and released in the U.S. by Rialto Pictures, it represents the gold standard of films about the French Resistance, based upon Joseph Kessel's 1943 novel and imbued with personal touches by Melville, an Alsatian Jew whose own involvement in the Resistance qualifiesArmy of Shadowsas a semi-autobiographical exercise in somber nostalgia, as indicated by an opening quote echoing Melville's ironic belief that memories of Nazi occupation needn't always be traumatic.

Having lived through this history, Melville doesn't treat it lightly; in Army of Shadows, the threat of death hangs over every scene like a shroud. Unfolding with flawless precision, the plot begins in 1942 and focuses on a small, secretive band of Resistance fighters led by Gerbier (Lino Ventura), whose intuitive sense of danger lends additional suspense to the film's dark, atmospheric study of grace under pressure. While working in the classical tradition of the Hollywood films he admired, Melville breaks from convention with ...

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Genre: Foreign
DVD Release Date: May 15, 2007
Runtime: 145 minutes
Studio: Criterion Collection
First to Review

"Nerves of Steel"
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