What Lurks Behind the Lines

Army of Shadows

Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and Simone Signoret star in a film written by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel, and directed by Melville.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

story.jpgClint Eastwood’s twin journeys into WWII lore — Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima — weren’t the only war films of notable taste and artistry from last year’s cinematic crop. Though Army of Shadows, by increasingly respected French new wave director Jean-Pierre Melville, came out in 1969, it has been rediscovered in its current re-release and showered with critical kudos, making many 2006 Top 10 lists and called Best Foreign Film of the Year by the New York Film Critics Circle. The film’s surprisingly subtle tale of espionage, courage, and barbarism during wartime touches us on both cinematic and current events-driven levels, especially during our own strained wartime mentality.

What connects Army with Eastwood’s war films is an unusual filmic poetry for the genre and an interest in getting beneath the surfaces of clichés and common wisdoms — Eastwood about the complicated stories surrounding the pivotal Iwo Jima battle and Melville about the volatile atmosphere in Vichy France under Nazi rule. The underlying creative principle is that the history books are not at all closed, but open to interpretation and investigation.

Melville, himself a part of the French Resistance during WWII, has a résumé that includes the fabulous gangster film Bob le Flambeur (also rediscovered on its re-release several years ago). In Army of Shadows, his sense of style and pacing rules, as he takes a slow, deeper route. Neatly etched impressions and scenarios count for much: The air of reluctance in a room where Resistance members have to kill a young betrayer contrast the Nazis’ easy sadism, and the ritual last cigarette among prisoners awaiting execution allows an intimate view of the soldiers in the last moments of their lives.

Drawing on his skills honed as a proto-New Waver in the ’50s, Melville intuitively created an apt kind of shadow play to convey this chapter of WWII, which went on underground and necessarily without fanfare. For these and other reasons, it more than holds up and seduces nearly 30 years later.

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