L'Armée des Ombres is not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. For a long time incredibly difficult to track down unless you speak French and overshadowed by the reputations of Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge and Bob le Flambeur, it's by far Jean-Pierre Melville's most heartfelt and powerful film. The resistance is as much a part of Melville as cinema - Melville was one of the false names he used during the war - and this is a film that feels as if it has been lived by the people making it: it's not so much a tribute as a confession of guilt. Although the gangster parallels are there, it's not an affectation: after the war, many resistance figures famously put their newly learned talents to use by either going into crime or politics. Melville went into movies.
His protagonists aren't action heroes. They don't blow up trains or bridges. They deliver radios and spend more time killing each other than killing Germans. Indeed, the film's four month timespan from October 1942 to February 1943 covers a moral journey that sees them go from killing traitors to killing friends. Many of their plans fail, their gestures often futile as it becomes clear that these people will never live to see the liberation - something brought tragically to light in the film's final moments that carry a real emotional punch absent in Melville's other work. The final image of the Arc de Triomphe glimpsed furtively through the windscreen of a car hurrying away from the murder of a friend is a solemn and bitter one: this is the human cost of victory. (The sequence originally ended with a shot of German troops parading down the Champs Elysee, emphasizing that nothing has changed, but the shot was moved to the opening of the film, acting both as historical scene-setter and leitmotif bookend.)
These people are afraid and ashamed, but that's what makes them so truly heroic and their inevitable fate so truly tragic. They don't need speeches or backstory - they are ennobled by their actions, futile or not.
Irony abounds. In the opening scenes, Lino Ventura's civil engineer and suspected resistance fighter is sent to a barely finished P.O.W. camp built by the French for German prisoners they never got the chance to capture and is now the exclusive domain of patriots, communists and fools waiting `to be broken.' Jean-Pierre Cassel, having eluded Nazi search parties, is stopped by gendarmes on the lookout for black market goods who ignore the radio transmitters he openly and casually shows them before waving him on his way. Even capture is as likely to come from a random identity check at a restaurant serving black market beef as it is from an informer.
It's the kind of film that gives low-key moviemaking a good name. As the film's composer Eric Demarsan noted, "I was struck by the strength of the silences, the looks, the waiting moments." Along with a great use of locations that are deliberately empty to emphasise the loneliness of the life they find themselves in, there's a wonderful use of sound and stillness: a daring attempt to rescue one of their number from an SS prison is played mostly in silence interrupted only by the constant clicking and unclicking of automated locks. When one character is seized, it is so quick and so silent that it is over almost before we know it, with only his signature hat left in the street to show he was ever there. The only `big' moment in the score is the use of Morton Gould's Re-Spirituals in the build-up to the chicken-run scene, underscoring Gerbier's desperate mental efforts to avoid death by an act of will. It sounds melodramatic, but it works, not least because of the sudden violence of the silence that ends it, heralding the end of hope.
Nothing feels sensationalized. Even murder is treated in a coldly matter of fact manner as a practical problem as much as a moral one. You have to kill a man, but you can't use a gun because the walls are paper-thin and it will alert the neighbors. What do you do? How do you rationalize killing a friend? And at what cost? All become more disturbing because they feel all-too real.
Some of the special effects are primitive even for their day, but it doesn't matter: you forgive them because you buy into the characters and the reality of their situation absolutely. And although the London sequences have problems, not least the embarrassingly Christ-like approach to filming De Gaulle, they are an interesting inversion of the French scenes. Here the war is fought noisily and openly with air raids and burning buildings, yet the traditionally repressed British still let their hair down - something Gerbier (Lino Ventura), having lived in secret for so long, cannot. He is left alone at the door to a pub, unable to join in, quietly leaving before anyone even notices him. In France, the war is fought in silence and in shadows, and it is the French who repress their every emotion. One character is even unable to confide in his own brother, completely unaware that his sibling is actually the head of his resistance group.
Even the smallest characters are splendidly drawn, from the gendarme accompanying Gerbier to the prison camp to Serge Reggiani's great matter-of-fact cameo as a barber who displays Vichy posters but holds De Gaullist sympathies. The film is so well cast that you believe in these people on sight. But quietly towering over them all is Ventura in his best performance, with a warmth that is not overt but still there, as well as a weakness - his shame at running at the behest of a sadistic German officer is all too convincing. Indeed, for all the undoubted right of their cause, the unifying feature of the main characters is their growing sense of shame.
Sobering, powerful and very moving - with the only one of Melville's pre-destined endings that is, offering no resolution, only damnation and the promise of death - L'Armee des Ombres is a genuine tragedy.
The extras on Criterion's 2-disc set are both plentiful and superb, covering both the film and the real resistance and include everything found on the French disc (30-minute documentary, the original French trailer) and the UK disc (audio commentary by Ginette Vincendeau, WW2 documentary on the resistance, TV excerpt of Melville directing the opening sequence, a booklet reprinting a lengthy part of the long out-of-print Melville on Melville on the film), as well as many more unique to the set, from interviews with the cinematographer and editor, a French documentary interviewing real members of the resistance and a TV interview with Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac, one of the inspirations for her character. A superb disc of a film that's finally gaining the recognition it always deserved.