By Sean Axmaker
Jean-Pierre Melville is surely the ultimate cult auteur in the French cinema. Spiritual godfather of the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard paid tribute to Melville with a generous cameo in his debut feature, Breathless), Melville was a maverick in the system from his astounding, independently produced debut, La Silence de la Mer (1947), a chamber drama set in France during the Nazi occupation, to his final film, the buddies-turned-nemeses heist thriller Un Flic (1972). He's a favorite director of John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann (whose coolly attenuated crime thrillers owe a debt to Melville), and his masterpiece, Le Samourai, was an inspiration to both Walter Hill's The Driver and Woo's The Killer.
Yet he remains a stealth director, more acknowledged than seen, a name more than a presence. Over thirty years after his premature passing, the majority of his thirteen features are, for all intents and purposes, unavailable. Only four have been released to DVD (another four released to VHS are all out of print). It's as if they are being slowly doled out, like the last precious drops of water on a desert trek.
That alone makes the restoration and theatrical re-release of his resistance drama Army of Shadows (1969, aka L'Armée des ombres), unseen stateside in any form since its initial release, an occasion. Melville remains most famous as master of the French gangster film, which he elegantly brought into the modern world with meticulously plotted and smoothly directed post-noir crime classics: the elegant, elegiac Bob le Flambeur, the wonderfully ironic tale of an aging gambler who plots an elaborate heist; the austere masterpiece, Le Samourai, starring Jean Gabin's heir apparent, Alain Delon, playing a meticulous hit man and the cinema's most insular existential hero; the heist classic, Le Cercle Rouge, the most Melville-ian of Melville's crime films. The sentimental code of friendship and honor among thieves seen in Bob le Flambeur plays like a winsome wish for a sentimental underworld fantasy threatened by the mercenary impulses of brazen young punks. By Le Cercle Rouge, it has hardened into a unforgiving cinema fantasy of loyalty, professionalism and sacrifice in a rarefied world of classy, uncompromising crooks locked in a symbiotic co-existence with the persistent and obsessive cops, a life that inevitably leads to a romantic doom.
Army of Shadows, the third of his three occupation dramas (La Silence de la Mer and Leon Morin, Priest, 1961, are the first two), shows another side of Melville, one at least partially drawn from his own experience. Melville was never a gangster, but during World War II he was a member of the Resistance and worked as well for French intelligence in London, eventually serving in the Free French forces during the liberation of Italy and France. It was during his early days of the Resistance in the south of France that the future director, born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, adopted the name of the American author. Melville long dreamed of adapting the 1943 novel, L'Armee des ombres, by Joseph Kessel, who was also a Resistance fighter, and whose fictional characters were based on real-life figures, ever since he read it while in exile in London. "This is my first movie showing things I've actually known and experienced," he told Rui Nogueira in his book of interviews, Melville on Melville.
Gangster movie icon Lino Ventura (who previously starred in Melville's brilliant and still unavailable Le Deuxième Soufflé, 1966) plays Resistance leader Philippe Gerbier with an observant stillness and coiled calm different from any his crime thrillers. Masked only by a pair of glasses, his face betrays almost no emotion; he looks no more dangerous than the accountant next door, but behind the careful body language and deliberate action is a patient and pragmatic man as compassionate to his comrades (especially his devoted deputy, played with understated gravitas by Simone Signoret) as he is resolute with traitors.
In the film's first act, when Gerbier is taken from a Vichy prison camp to Gestapo headquarters for interrogation, his patience and his methodical study of his environment pays off when he executes a daring escape. But there is a brutal ambiguity about the scene that Melville defiantly never clarifies. It takes two people and Gerbier enlists a fellow prisoner he has never met into his plan. It could be a test for the unknown man (is he a plant?), a feint (is he up to the challenge?) or a genuine offer of escape to a fellow resistance fighter, but the upshot is that the mystery man draws the attention and the fire of the guards in his flight to the exit, leaving Gerbier to slip out the side and run to freedom.
Melville plays none of it for grand melodrama or heart-pounding action. It takes place almost completely in the daylight, in sparsely populated streets, deserted countrysides, and blandly unmemorable cells and military offices. We're never shown the ordeal of torture, only the results, and no heroic demises. The deaths we see are the painful sentences the Resistance places on their own compromised people. Even our heroes get little more than a brief obituary, delivered in a terse piece of dialogue or a sobering onscreen notice.
If anything, the vision is more fatalistic than any of his Melville's crime classics. But more resonant than the atmosphere of ever-present danger and death sentences hanging over them all is the feeling of isolation and loneliness that permeates every scene. The assignments may play like heists with higher stakes (the iconic trenchcoats help blur the lines), but there is none of the bonhommie camaraderie of his gangster films, no celebrations of successful missions in a basement café, no rest from the constant surveillance of soldiers and cops making random sweeps. The romantic code of loyalty and honor becomes an unforgiving law of survival: betrayal is death and there is no reprieve. In this world, triumph is being killed in an act of mercy by your comrades rather than executed by your enemy.
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