In the United States, director Jean-Pierre Melville is best known for the film Le Samourai. As widely acclaimed as that film was, however, it is not his masterpiece. That would be L'Armee des ombres or, in English, Army of Shadows. While Le Samourai would be released in the United States and United Kingdom not long after its release in France, L'Armee des ombres would have to wait until long after its French release in 1969 for an English speaking audience. It was not released in the UK until 1978. We Americans had to wait even longer. It was just released here last year. That is particularly sad, as L'Armee des ombres is arguably Melville's best film.
L'Armee des ombres was based on Joseph Kessel's novel about the French Resistance in World War II. Because of this Jean-Pierre Melville was perhaps the best possible director for the film, having been part of the Resistance. Indeed, Melville's experience informs Army of Shadows with an authenticity that another director might not been able to produce. This is not a simple minded action movie or a piece of patriotic propaganda. L'Armee des ombres is a dark, serious minded film.
Indeed, L'Armee des ombres portrays a world where good and evil are very relative terms, the outcome of any given action ultimately determining whether it is right or wrong. It is a time and place where individuals fighting for their nation's freedom must always be careful that they do not lose their humanity. The movie brings to mind Nietzche's famous quote, "He who fights monsters must take care lest he become a monster." It is a world where duty comes above all else, where sacrifices, even of what one loves the most, are part and parcel of life.
Melville's direction is very stylised. The film utilises a drab colour scheme, where the sky always seems to be cloudy. Throughout the film Melville uses edits, pans, and contrasts to add to the movie's dreary atmosphere. At the same time, however, Melville directs L'Armee des ombres with a sense of detachment that English speaking viewers might know from the oeuvre of Kubrick. In many ways, Army of Shadows seems much more like a piece of cinema verite than a work of fiction.
The cast is also remarkable. Lino Ventura is wonderfully understated as civil engineer Philippe Gerbier, who becomes one of the heads of the Resistance. Simone Signoret, so often cast as women of a shady nature in her earlier films, is convincing as Mathilde, Gerbier's chief assistant. Not one single performance is off key, remarkable in a movie where the characters are all three dimensional and very complex.
I have to warn anyone wanting see this film that, in case one hasn't guessed by now, L'Armee des ombres. The satisfaction of watching L'Armee des ombres does not come from seeing the heroes defeat their opponents, but rather from looking into the struggles of a group of people as they fight for freedom without losing their honour. It is fascinating to watch and quite possibly one of the best World War II movies ever made. It is a shame that Melville's masterpiece did not reach America sooner.