Studiocanal are releasing a set of six key films of celebrated director Jean-Pierre Melville in his centenary year, part IV is L’armee Des Ombres, aka Army Of Shadows.
This time with Melville, we’re in France in 1942 when the Germans are occupying the country. The French resistance, also known as the Shadow Army, are in full swing working with the British.
Philippe Gerbier, Lino Ventura (Garde A Vue, Les Tontons Flingueurs), plays a French Resistance commander, he’s second in command. At the start we see him denounced by a French collaborator and sent to a concentration camp.
The camp doesn’t hold him for long however and, on his escape, he joins up with the shadow army in Marseille where he finds the man who denounced him and executes him.
After this we follow the army, and Gerbier, as they move from location to location, always trying to stay ahead of the occupying Germans. They fly to London to request more weapons from the British, some of their team are captured, some are rescued, some aren’t so lucky.
Gerbier himself is captured on a few occasions but always manages to escape, sometimes at the last minute. He promotes Mathilde, Simone Signoret (Les Diaboliques, Room At The Top) as his number two but, sadly for her and some members of the team, she has a weakness which the Germans are quick to exploit.
This time round Melville adapted the screenplay from a book by acclaimed writer Joseph Kessel, who is perhaps best known for Belle de Jour.
Melville takes great pleasure in ramping up the tension throughout and rarely releasing it. He also plunges us into complete blackness on numerous occasions. To give us some hint at the unknown? What life was like? The blackouts?
The French resistance is full of uncertainty and no-one within knows who to trust or even who the ‘big boss’ is. When he is being smuggled on board a submarine to London it’s remarked how decidedly like the rest of us the big boss is, not that big at all.
Ventura is perfect as Gerbier. He is frustrated at times, but never scared, he’s cool throughout and, whether he wants to do some of the things he does or not, he knows they must be done.
Melville allows us to follow some of the other members of the team at times, such as: Jean-Pierre Cassel (The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, Murder On The Orient Express), a late joiner to the army, Claude Mann (Bay Of Angels, India Song) as Le Masque, Christian Barbier (Trans-Europ-Express, Peace Over The Fields) as Le Bison and Gerbier’s first number two, Paul Crauchet (Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic).
This can lead to confusion at certain points around who is currently handling the voice-over, but once you get used to it it’s not a problem.
With Army Of Shadows, Melville once again shows his directing prowess. It’s a masterful slice of tension that was unreleased in the US for 37 years!
As a bonus on the Blu-ray there’s a documentary (nearly an hour and a half long): Army Of Shadows: The Hidden Side Of The Story. As usual, the transfer is well done and this is the first of the films in the collection that is in colour.
Melville, The Essential Collection boxset is released on December 11th 2017 and features brand-new 4k restorations and new extras. The films included are: Le Doulos, Bob Le Flambeur, Leon Morin, Priest, L’Armee Des Ombres, The Cercle Rouge and Un Flic.