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PopGap #12: Army of Shadows (1969)

PopGap #12: Army of Shadows (1969)

Written by dorrk
31 December 2015

Peer Review: Ranking the movies and the rankers who rank them.

The French Resistance has emerged only twice during my movie schedule this year, but the quantity of time it has racked up is substantial. Earlier this year, I revisited Marcel Ophüls's monumental 1969 documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, which recounted both France's collapse in the face of German aggression at the onset of World War II and the subsequent underground movement to subvert the collaboration of Marshal Pétain's Vichy government with the Germans. This month, I watched Jean-Pierre Melville's drama Army of Shadows — also from 1969, so these two movies were originally seen in close proximity to each other — which dives into the murky operations of "Le Resistance" within a fictionalized context. That's six-and-a-half hours, just between those two films. (Out of extra-curricular interest, I also rewatched Claude Lelouch's flawed 1995 reimagining of Les Miserables, which parallels Victor Hugo's French Revolution setting with the World War II insurgency, adding almost three-hours to that already formidable total.) I think it's unquestionable that watching both 1969 films within the same short time span has enhanced the impact of each, so it's hard to say how much of the remarkable emotional impact I felt at the end of Army of Shadows is down to that film alone, but the cumulative effect was profound, and the weight of the final shot wiped me out.

Lino Ventura stars in Army of Shadows (L'armée des ombres) as Philippe Gerbier, the leader of a cell of resistance fighters operating in Marseilles. He and his small network of associates are low on resources, lack central direction, and can only improvise their way through most situations. They deal with informers, arrests, prison escapes, smuggling equipment and people, and tying up loose ends that might endanger their operation, rarely knowing what if any effect their risky actions might actually have on the larger war effort.

Told with the same slow and bleak, natural but methodical approach that Melville used in Le Samourai, Army of Shadows is largely unsensational but still engrossing, and punctuated with moments of action that fully capitalize on the careful character-building that inhabits the long stretches in between. Alongside Ventura, Paul Crauchet, Christian Barbier, Claude Mann, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret and Paul Meurisse, all give quiet and reserved, but powerful, performances as soldiers for whom the mere existence of their moral opposition is enough to justify the murky depths within which they must operate. Melville, who adopted his working last name as a cover during his own real-life campaign with the resistance, informs his adaptation of Joseph Kessel's novel with a gripping verisimilitude that only briefly begs credibility. Throughout Army of Shadows, Melville's deceptively hushed aesthetic, and the foreboding sense of menace underlying it, presages the style of Francis Coppola's The Godfather, on which it was doubtless a heavy influence.

Flickchart user Quirky only has five of my own Top 100 within his 20 favorite movies, but we share the same #1, The Godfather, Part II, and I don't dislike any of the other 18 that I've seen. Army of Shadows, which hit a stellar #209 (94%) on my own Flickchart, is now my 7th favorite movie in Quirky's Top 20. Despite this high ranking, his compatibility score has dropped 28 points to 434 due to the introduction of another movie into his Top 20 at the expense of another I like better.

PopGap #12: Army of Shadows (1969)

Trailer for Army of Shadows (1969)