Criterion // 1969 // 145 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 11th, 2011
"Jean-Pierre Melville's masterpiece about the French Resistance."
Hype is a dangerous beast. If nobody hears about a film, then it won't be seen, but if people hear too much about a film, it probably won't be seen, either. This situation doesn't just apply to new releases, as the 2006 furor over Army of Shadows ably proves. The film was originally released in 1969 as the feature Jean-Pierre Melville made between Le Samuraï and Le Cercle Rouge, but was never given American distribution. A 2004 restoration provided the necessary elements for an American début, and the critics raved upon the film's premiere on U.S. shores. Despite its vintage, the film made it on to numerous year-end best-of lists, and the critical orthodoxy was that a lost Melville masterpiece had been unearthed. Criterion handled the DVD release, and that disc also made it onto a number of best-of lists. Several years later that DVD is being ported to Blu-ray, offering an opportunity to evaluate the film away from the hype occasioned by its rediscovery. Luckily for film fans the hype was right in this case: Army of Shadows (Blu-ray) is a brilliant film by an important director that offers a hard look at what sacrifice really means.
Told in episodes, Army of Shadows follows the machinations of the French Resistance during World War II, especially those of a cell led by Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura). We watch as the men and women of the Resistance plot against the Nazis.
It's hard to judge just how significant Army of Shadows is in the output of Jean-Pierre Melville. On the one hand he's made other films about the war, but on the other his most famous films are existential gangster pictures. The only analogy I can think to draw is with Quentin Tarantino. Imagine if he, in between, say, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had directed a brilliant examination of the Persian Gulf War. The analogy at first seems a bit facile until we realize that both directors are deeply knowledgeable film historians, both obsessed with the details that make up the lives of gangsters, and both are unafraid of nihilistic endings. The wide gulf that separates them is that Tarantino has never found a picture to bring to the screen with the gravity of Army of Shadows. In this feature, Melville unites his obsessive attention to detail, existential dread, and love of action with a story featuring heroes' worth of talents.
Words do not do much to defend Army of Shadows, perhaps the best film to use silence since Rififi. The lesson of the film, the lesson of the Resistance, is that silence cannot give away secrets. So, the characters, for the most part, go about their deadly business without a word. This fact has obvious historical and thematic resonance, but it also gives greater weight to the film's visuals. Melville is clearly aware of this fact, and fills his frame with interesting compositions (like the infamous Nazi parade in front of the Arc de Triomph at the film's opening) in various shades of blue, gray, and brown.
The silence also leaves us with a number of actors who we must know almost entirely through their actions. There can be no bulky exposition for a group who operates in secrecy; we often don't know the characters' names, let alone their back story. The actors are up to the task. Lino Ventura is stone-faced yet sympathetic as Gerbier, Jean-Pierre Cassel has an excellent role as a convert to the Resistance, but the film belongs to Simone Signoret. She is perhaps more famous for her turns in Diabolique and Casque d'Or, but her performance here is a revelation. She is a crucial link in Gerbier's cell, and she brings her famous earthiness to the role while balancing between the glamour of her former looks and the bitter realities of her present. If this performance was all that the re-release of Army of Shadows rescued then it would be a worthwhile endeavor.
This is another case of Criterion re-releasing a previous DVD on Blu-ray, and they've done their usual masterful job. The AVC encoded transfer looks superb. This is an intentionally desaturated film, and the colors contribute significantly to the film's overall feel. Detail and black levels are strong throughout, and the sheen of grain is filmlike without being intrusive. The restoration comparison included as an extra shows just how much damage was corrected for this edition, and that's a good thing. The LPCM mono track in French is equally superb, keeping dialogue audible with hiss and distortion at a minimum.
Army of Shadows was a substantial double disc DVD, and those extras have been ported over to this Blu-ray. First up is a commentary by historian Ginette Vincendeau, who treats Melville's work more generally in addition to offering insight into the specific genesis, production, and reception of Army of Shadows. Then we get a number of featurettes on Melville. The first is from a French news program from 1968, and includes footage of Melville directing the Nazi march. Another TV piece runs almost 40 minutes, and includes more on-set footage as well as interviews with the main cast. We get two recent interviews, the first with the film's cinematographer and the second with its editor. Both share their feelings about working with Melville and the way the film has grown in stature over the last several decades. Continuing the contemporary trend, Melville et L'Armee Des Ombres features interviews with surviving cast and crew discussing their work on the film. Then there's an entire section dedicated to the Resistance. One featurette here focuses on Simone Signoret and the inspiration for her character Lucie Arbic. There's also a documentary produced in 1944 that features footage of actual Resistance fighters doing their anti-Nazi thing. It's an amazing historical document and really helps flesh out what Garbier and his crew were fighting for. There's also a 1973 TV special about the Resistance, where various fighters recount their experiences during the war. Again it puts a real face on the fictional characters. Finally, the disc includes a pair of theatrical trailers. The usual criterion booklet includes input from Amy Taubin, Robert Paxton, and Melville himself, in interview.
Army of Shadows is not the typical war film, which generally means "action" film. No, it's a rather slow, character-based drama that in some small way demonstrates what it must have been like to live as part of the Resistance. Sure there's some gunplay and daring escapes, but this is a film more about silence and sacrifice than soldiers and shooting.
In my lifetime a number of high-profile films have tried to show the human cost of World War II. None of them brought home the horrors of that conflict as neatly and painfully as Army of Shadows. In an era where the French are reviled in the media as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," this film shows that they too have paid a high price for freedom. Luckily for film fans, Criterion has upgraded their excellent DVD to this fantastic Blu-ray, and while the upgraded picture and sound might not tempt everyone into a double dip, first-time viewers will certainly enjoy this set's audiovisual presentation and extras.
Best to say it simply: Army of Shadows is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Stereo (French)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Not Rated