Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Army of Shadows

In his early twenties, Jean-Pierre Melville joined the French Resistance. In 1944, he played a part in the strategically important but often overlooked Operation Dragoon. The following year, he took his first steps towards a career as a filmmaker, directing his first short. A less persistent character might have reeled from an early setback at being rejected upon applying for an assistant director’s licence; Melville simply thumbed his nose at the system and established himself as an independent filmmaker, assimilating into his work the tropes and imagery of the American crime movies he loved and attracting the collaboration of major figures in French cinema – Alain Delon, Simone Signoret, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva and Lino Ventura.

It was Ventura whom Melville cast in ‘Army of Shadows’, his adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s (necessarily fictionalised) 1943 book about his experiences in the Resistance. Melville, it hardly needs to be said, also drew upon his own history. Ventura plays Philippe Gerbier, the leader of a rigidly organised network. Despite the professionalism of any Resistance operative, however, betrayal and/or arrest were an occupational hazard, and ‘Army of Shadows’ opens with Gerbier transported by the Vichy police to an internment camp originally built during the “phoney war” where he is quartered with, as he muses in sardonic voiceover, “three imbeciles and two lost children”. One of the latter, however, is a former power station worker who discusses with Gerbier the possibility of shutting down the camp’s electrics, leaving him to make his escape in darkness. Before the plan can be put into effect, Gerbier is sold out by a turncoat – betrayal is the film’s constant theme – and hauled off to Gestapo headquarters in Paris. Here, he takes advantage of a young guard’s inexperience and a fellow prisoner’s complicity (it’s strongly implied that the other prisoner is gunned down while Gerbier makes good his escape) and is soon reunited with his old network. He first bit of business is the execution of the supposed comrade who informed on him.

The first half hour of Melville’s astoundingly dispassionate epic makes it very clear indeed that the usual tenets of the genre are nowhere to be found here. In 1969 – Melville lensed ‘Army of Shadows’ two years after his box-office-melting exercise in cool ‘Le Samourai’ – war movies tended to the Boy’s Own action spectacular template of the last decade or so, with square-jawed macho heroes giving the Hun a bloody good seeing to, whether it was Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris in ‘The Heroes of Telemark’, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood in ‘Where Eagles Dare’, Gregory Peck and David Niven in ‘The Guns of Navarone’ or Lee Marvin et al in ‘The Dirty Dozen’. The only permissible moral grey area was making the protagonists of the latter a cut-throat bunch of crims, and even that was little more than a get-out clause for massacring most of the cast without sacrificing audience sympathies.

‘Army of Shadows’ is aptly titled. The Resistance were known as “the underground” for good reason. These were people who kept themselves hidden. Who knew that secrecy was paramount. Melville’s film swiftly establishes another meaning: that of compromised morality; a sort of sliding scale of survivalism where emotions and friendships need to be rigorously compartmentalised for the sake of the cause. It’s not until the 2 hour 20 running time has reached its final quarter of an hour that Melville makes his final shattering statement on the theme.

The administration and governance of Resistance networks is what Melville is principally interested in. A late-in-the-game sequence has Gerbier, rescued from what would otherwise have been certain death, doing the paperwork as he spends an enforced month in hiding. Elsewhere, the film details minutiae: transporting radio components; delivering messages; arranging passage to England to liaise with RAF contacts; getting back into France; staying one step ahead of the Gestapo. It’s telling that ‘Army of Shadows’ doesn’t document a single operation against the Nazis. No factories, munitions dumps or research facilities are destroyed; no crucial weapons development is interrupted; no high-ranking official is snatched from under the Reich’s nose.

Melville isn’t interested in heroism or hagiography. This is, instead, a story about trying to survive under almost insurmountable odds. Every scene is suffused with a grimly portentous atmosphere, the sense that the hammer is about to fall. Even a daring, meticulously plotted and nerve-wrackingly suspenseful sequence detailing a rescue attempt pays off in dour fashion with the plan foiled and the Resistance operatives making a muted and disheartened retreat.

While not entirely perfect – there is a face-palming obvious continuity error during an airborne scene, and Melville’s evocation of London in the blitz flirts with the most abject clichés – ‘Army of Shadows’ deserves attention for its commitment to an aspect of the Resistance movement that I don’t think I’ve seen portrayed in any other movie. The bitter irony is that, when originally released, the prevailing indigenous critical attitude felt it too slavish to De Gaulle – who’s barely mentioned in the script (although Gerbier’s boss, the head of the underground, can be seen as something of a stand-in) – and the film received little attention outside France. Nearly seventy years later, with cinema having swung from black-and-white (in both senses) Hun-bashing machismo, to unflinching anti-war statements (‘King and Country’, ‘Paths of Glory’), to perspectives from the other side (‘Das Boot’, ‘Downfall’), there’s never been a better time to rediscover ‘Army of Shadows’.


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