“Army of Shadows” – A.J. Hakari

One can’t even begin to fathom how many jokes have been made at the expense of the French and their perceived wussiness in World War II. But if there were any evidence to the contrary, it can be found in the frames of Le Samourai director Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows. Released in France in 1969 but not in the U.S. until 2006, Army of Shadows is a harrowing look into the lives of men and women who spent this period in world history walking on eggshells, immersing themselves in a dangerous world of freedom fighting where one’s efforts have as much a chance of proving fruitless as they would successful.

Drawing from real-life experiences, Melville’s story takes place amongst the members of the French Resistance, a group working in secret to survive amidst Hitler’s rule. The film begins as civil engineer Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a fairly prominent Resistance figure, is being brought to an internment camp. Soon after his imprisonment, Gerbier escapes the clutches of the Gestapo and makes his way back to his colleagues, resuming his efforts to try and deal whatever blows against the Third Reich he can. The viewer comes to see that there is little room for emotion in the life of a Resistance member, as Gerbier’s tasks entail executing traitors and sending his men on highly dangerous missions, from escorting a Resistance leader to a submarine escape to smuggling important equipment through security checkpoints. Gerbier and his colleagues lead a life where there is no room for slip-ups, where the slightest mistake can result in a blown cover cause everyone’s efforts to come crashing to the ground.

As you probably can tell, Army of Shadows is far removed from the action-packed spy thriller in the James Bond vein. It rather resembles The Good Shepherd more so, in how both films set out to convey the almost painfully slow, extremely delicate, and (unfortunately) scarcely rewarding natures of their respective clandestine operations. But another element that Army of Shadows has in common with Robert De Niro’s CIA saga is what a chore it is to watch. This isn’t exactly the most active film on the block, often straddling the line between suspensefully depicting the tightrope act the characters are perpetually performing and just plain not having them do anything. As much as Melville does an astounding job of blessing his picture with a realistic “you are there” vibe, he also detracts from it by going overboard on a number of uneventful sequences. What could have been tightened up with smart editing or even effective narration occasionally becomes prolonged past the point of effectiveness, further bloating a deservedly daunting two hour and 25 minute running time. In short, Melville is much more a fan of the “show” aspect of cinema here than the “tell,” and this works both for and against him in the end.

The narrative is a little screwy as well, occasionally shifting from focusing on Gerbier (played with compelling subtlety by Ventura) to randomly following around an operative or two who get their own narration before being abandoned at the drop of a hat. Although Melville succeeds in getting an emotionless yet absorbing performance from Ventura, his attempts to expand the story into a multi-character epic aren’t as successful. But don’t take all this to mean that Army of Shadows is a dreary dirge of a film that offers no fulfillment of any kind. There are many moments of quiet intensity, where the lack of action is crisp and engaging, truly coaxing the viewer onto the edge of their seat in anticipation (Gerbier’s escape early in the film is a great example of such a scene). Melville creates a harrowing atmosphere of hopelessness, of the characters engaging in heroics that have a very good chance of backfiring and not even bringing about their desired change. He vividly conveys what a gamble it was to exist at the time, thus presenting not so much a “story” but rather an exploration of the feelings, moods, and culture of the setting. Those in search of a hip-happenin’ movie with something going on every five seconds will be left out to dry, but those yearning for a more realistic and, in some ways, more engaging antithesis to Thunderball may be richly rewarded.

Army of Shadows is a fairly heavy nut to crack, despite a seemingly bare-bones premise and a number of explanatory themes prevalent throughout the film. It’s definitely not the type of film one can pick up and watch on a whim, more like a school science project you have to watch in shifts so as not to strain your analytical muscles all at once. This slow, deliberate approach will enrage some and dazzle others, but for yours truly, Melville’s alluringly gloomy atmosphere did just the trick in tipping the scales of criticism in his favor.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s Army of Shadows review here.

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