Army of Shadows (1969)

A brief review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Director – Jean-Pierre Melville; writer – Jean-Pierre Melville; based on the novel by Joseph Kessel; director of photography – Pierre Lhomme; editor – Françoise Bonnot; music – Éric de Marsan; art director – Théobald Meurisse; producer – Jacques Dorfmann. Starring – Lino Ventura (Philippe Gerbier), Simone Signoret (Mathilde), Paul Meurisse (Luc Jardie), Jean-Pierre Cassel (François), Claude Mann (Le Masque) and Paul Crauchet (Félix). Rialto Pictures. 140 minutes. Unrated.

Try to imagine what it would have been like if Robert Bresson had directed Steven Spielberg’s Munich. If you can manage that, you’ll have a pretty good grasp of what Army of Shadows is like.

It’s an nail-bitingly intense spy thriller about the French resistance to the Nazis in 1942 and 1943. As bleak as it is compelling, it will leave you wondering if these freedom fighters haven’t done more damage to each other than they have to the Nazi aggressors. Still, you’ll walk away impressed by their dedication, courage, and sacrifice.

And it has the ring of truth. Jean-Pierre Melville, the director, had some experience with the resistance, and there is an exciting realism to the tension, the danger, and the miserable places where the agents in this network must meet and hide. Embroiled in excruciating moral dilemmas that may remind viewers of The Godfather or Miller’s Crossing, these daredevil heroes must fire their pistols based on dangerous guesses, and they must endure the whimpering appeals for mercy from villains they take hostage.

Army of Shadows may try some viewers’ patience. But if you watch it more than once, you’ll probably agree that it’s one of the best films about World War 2, even though it feels more like a gangster flick than a war movie. And the lead actor, Lino Ventura, is extraordinary. He looks like Peter Sellers with the slow-burn intensity of Robert DeNiro.

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