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

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

story.jpgClint Eastwood’s twin journeys into WWII
lore — Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo
 — weren’t the only war films of notable taste and
artistry from last year’s cinematic crop. Though Army of
, 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

Melville, himself a part of the French Resistance during WWII,
has a résumé that includes the fabulous gangster film Bob le
(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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