Monday, August 07, 2006


I’d never heard of the late Jean-Pierre Melville until five years ago, when I saw his 1951 noir gangster masterpiece Bob le Flambeur at a local film festival. It was the best movie I saw in 2001. Since then, I’ve seen other Melville classics — Le Samourai (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and Un Flic (1972) — and I was thrilled a few weeks ago to hear that after more than three decades, his 1969 movie about the French resistance to Nazi occupation, L’Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows), was finally released in the U.S. and would be playing in a theater just a few miles away.

Army of Shadows practically blew me through the back of the auditorium and into the snack bar. It's gut-twisting, unrelenting, and uncompromising. Even 37 years after its original French release, it kicks the shit out of every other film I’ve seen so far this year.

Saying this movie is about the French Resistance is to shortchange it. Army of Shadows is a cinematic textbook about resistance...period. Its lessons: Resistance against tyranny isn’t romantic. It isn’t swashbuckling. It isn’t glorious. Rather, it’s lonely. It’s tragic. It’s pushing the envelope further and further, taking it as far as you can. It’s often hopeless. Too frequently, it’s about betrayal. Heartbreak. Impossible choices. And it usually ends in death.

There are absolutely unforgettable, devastating moments in Army of Shadows. Here’s one:

An operative named Felix is captured and tortured by the Gestapo. A plan to rescue him is doomed to fail, and freedom fighter Jean François seems to back out of the operation and disappear in disgrace. But what Jean François has actually done is send an anonymous letter to the Gestapo, exposing himself as a member of the resistance. His plan is to be arrested so he can smuggle a single cyanide pill to Felix in order to end his comrade’s pain, even though he will himself face torture. None of Jean François’s associates will ever know of his sacrifice for a friend.

Here’s another:

Operative Phillippe Gerbier is captured. He and seven others are lined up at the end of a long tunnel by the SS. The prisoners are told they may begin running to the other end of the tunnel before the machine guns start firing. Whoever reaches the far wall will be spared execution — until the next day, when the process will be repeated. Gerbier, believing he’s finished, decides not to run and play the Nazis’ game. What finally occurs is surprising and haunting.

Army of Shadows is dark, but its soul is filled with self-assurance and courage. If you think the only libertarian “must see” film this year is V for Vendetta, you’re wrong. See this one.


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