The opening shot of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 lost masterpiece Army Of Shadows follows a procession of German troops as they march down the Champs-Elysées, a daily ritual that enforced feelings of hopelessness and humiliation among the occupied French. Melville initially planned to put the shot at the very end of the film, but inserting it at the beginning sets an extraordinarily bleak tone, making clear that this will be no ordinary tribute to bravery and derring-do among the Resistance fighters, but a tale infused with deep tragedy. In its grim fatalism and utter lack of sentiment, Army Of Shadows is of a piece with work like Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge, Melville's famed deconstructions of American gangster films, except here, his connection is more personal. As a member of the Resistance himself, Melville harbors no illusions about the real sacrifices involved in operating against the Gestapo and the Vichy government, not just in lives lost, but also in souls forever compromised.
Playing an archetypal Melville hero, Lino Ventura suggests enormous strength while betraying little emotion as the leader of a small cell of Resistance fighters. After Ventura escapes from a German prison camp and slips into a barbershop for cover, Melville gives the first taste of just how precariously the lives of these rebels hangs in the balance: The barber, straight-razor in hand, could be friend or foe, and Ventura has no choice but to submit himself to fate. From there, the film unfolds in a series of vivid anecdotes, as Ventura and his compatriots survive (or don't) imprisonment and torture, risky operations, and extreme isolation within their own country. Throughout it all, there are no inspirational speeches or back-slapping triumph, just a silent acknowledgment that they have to fight at a steep cost.
In spite of its clear significance, Army Of Shadows didn't reach American shores until last year due to bad timing; after Charles De Gaulle put down a student uprising in 1968, French critics were in no mood for a movie that championed the Resistance. And since those critics wielded major influence on programmers overseas, the film was effectively quashed. Finally released more than 30 years after Melville's death, Army Of Shadows is a bracing lesson in patriotism without illusion, and the starkest, truest imaginable tribute to those who give their lives for their countries.
Key features: Disc one includes a fine, wide-ranging commentary track by film historian Ginette Vincendeau; the second disc includes many fine supplements, especially a section on the film's restoration and a frank interview with editor Françoise Bonnot about working with the tyrannical Melville.