L'Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows), Starring Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and Paul Crauchet, Written & Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969
Utterly devastating without any recourse to maudlinism or sympathy, Melville’s 1969 masterpiece L'Armée des ombres is a film generally as stoic as its protagonist Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), civil engineer and head of a French Resistance network during World War Two. The film manages to demonstrate that while there are plenty of moments of deep tension and fear, there are likewise moments of light and long stretches of incredible tedium in the undercover life. Yet the gripping atmosphere of the film pervades every choice, from the way Gerbier’s eyes flick around a barber shop in the midst of being shaved, his shrewd manner taking in the pro-government poster of the Vichy leader Petain, to the wrenching early scene where the Resistance has to dispose of a traitor in their midst.
In a film full of emotional punches straight to the gut, this particular scene is probably one of the harshest. Having picked up the traitor off the streets, three members of the Resistance take the feckless young man back to an isolated farmhouse. There, they discover that the recent arrival of neighbors makes shooting him impossible. As they work their way through the options available to them for his dispatch, the cold-bloodedness of Gerbier is matched against the terrified inexperience of Claude Le Masque (Claude Mann). The final decision, all three of them involved in the traitor’s slow, silent strangulation by dishcloth, is masterfully filmed, the camera moving from face to face. It is one of the more unsettling scenes I have ever watched, a character’s death being profoundly, reverently handled.
It takes some minutes to recover from this scene and even before you can manage it, Melville has Gerbier explain to Le Masque that he should keep cyanide pills on him at all times in case of capture. The young man’s two-word response is delivered in a complex mix of resignation, resolution, and anger. Shot from behind at the execution’s closing, this moment is a bleak coda: in the Resistance you must be prepared to sacrifice everything, your life, and even your own humanity, for what you know is right.
This ideal, if you can quite call it that, is part of the animating principle of this cell as we follow them through their various operations. There is a low-lit, almost religious fervor as they fight against the Nazis, with much of the film taking place in behind the scenes rather than dramatic action sequences. Though the film does have those, too. Melville skillfully blends a moment of personal doubt, dignified resistance to give the Germans the entertainment they crave and the luck of synchronicity with smoke bombs, machine guns, a prison escape, and a racing getaway vehicle.
This successful operation is mirrored in the film by an earlier less successful rescue attempt of the network’s number two, Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), a scenario that involves three members dressing up in German uniforms, two soldiers and one nurse, entering the Gestapo headquarters to sneak him out right under the German’s noses. Excruciatingly slow, the whole set up has the three driving a truck into the compound, large metal gates clanging shut behind them. This plan is the brainchild of the Resistance’s most admired member, Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a housewife who authors the more audacious of all of the network’s plans with a combination of brilliance and straight-faced moxie. The planned escape attempt is a failure, but Melville draws the tension of the situation out to an almost agonizing degree. I found myself fighting the urge to leap out of my seat and frantically pace the room as the scene ground on. The lightning reactions of Mathilde as the plan goes awry are a testament to quiet intelligence and a chess-like ability to think in the midst of incredible odds against you.
This large-scale failure has its alternate success in the double-double undercover maneuver of the Resistance’s newest member, Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel). Having a week earlier written a letter of resignation to Gerbier, followed shortly by another letter to the German officials denouncing himself as a man who knows much of the Resistance, Jean-François has the good fortune to be in Lepercq’s cell, bringing him the ultimate comfort one spy can give another. It is the same kind of dignity and personal avowal of respect that is given to the network’s most solid member in a late assassination that absolutely demolishes the viewer in its devastating closing mise en scène. It all happens without flash and show, effectively countering action film bombast with real human drama.
In a way, this anti-action aspect of the film is its most powerful. Anyone can make a spy movie filled with gadgetry, explosions and car chases, but it takes a brilliant director to demonstrate simply and without grandiose gestures life’s existential dilemmas under moments of extreme duress. Gerbier’s moment of truth comes not in the film, but is delivered in a closing credits caption, neatly tying back into his moment of personal failure (his view) at the Gestapo prison. Bleakly heroic, L'Armée des ombres will haunt you for quite some time.