Army of Shadows

shadows1 shadows2 shadows3

Jean-Pierre Melville’s portrait of a small group of French Resistance fighters left me shaken.  The film has very little violence in it, but it produces a non-stop feeling of acute tension.  In his “minimalist” directorial style, Melville’s characters rarely discuss their feelings or motivations.  They rarely discuss anything.  The Germans are methodical, brutal, and occasionally openly sadistic.  The fighters move around in the death-maze created by the Nazi occupation, carrying out their missions and trying not to get caught…yet.

They sense that they will all be caught, eventually.  Life and death frequently hinge on split-second decisions, or just plain chance.  In an early sequence, the main character finds himself on a bench in Gestapo headquarters sitting next to another man waiting for questioning.  The only outcome of interrogation is death.  With a few words at an opportune moment, a plan is formed.  The hero escapes, and the other?  Did he escape the machine gun fire we hear?  We, and the hero, never know.

The army is one  of shadows, in the shadows, but also of shadow-people.  To preserve security, no one knows much of the history of anyone else.  An important figure in the organization is a family relation to another, lesser figure.  Neither knows of the other’s work. The less known, the less said during the inevitable torture.  That’s if you don’t get the chance to swallow your cyanide first.

Sounds like a thriller?  It’s not like any other.  The people are ordinary, made extraordinary by their ordeal.  No heroic missions – it’s not even clear how much they accomplish – so much of the action centers on their responses to the arrests of their associates.  During one halcyon segment, a local noble provides his estate for use as a nocturnal airstrip for British planes, and all goes remarkably well for a while.  The man was a reactionary before the war, but he came around.  We are told matter-of-factly that the Germans rounded him up with his private militia of local farmers and shot them all without trial.  Back to the alleyways…

I read that some left-wing critics in 1969 (the year of its release – it was not successful and was hardly seen until its recent restoration) called the film “Gaulist propaganda.”  De Gaulle was considered by many, at that time, to be a reactionary obstacle to progress in France, his glory days as the leader of the Free French were far behind. 

There is a scene in the film in which de Gaulle is featured briefly, pinning a medal on a Resistance leader who is clearly moved to be in his presence.  But as for la politique quotidienne – everyday politics, that is – I think the film is way beyond that.  In an early scene, when the main character is in a prison camp, he addresses a young fellow inmate, an inexperienced, self-identified communist, as “comrade.”  The young man, surprised, asks, “Are you a communist too?”  “No,” he replies. “But I have comrades.”  They make an escape plan.

The sequence of images below is from the climactic scene at the end.  Mathilde (Simone Signoret) the mastermind of so many operations is compromised by the Nazis.  She must be eliminated.  She accepts her fate.  It is the only way.

mathilde_1 mathilde_2

mathilde_2a mathilde_3

mathilde_4 mathilde_5

mathilde_6 mathilde_7

[I don’t want to give too much away, but on at least one occasion, Melville’s style was so minimalist, I was confused about a fact that provides a powerful emotional statement.  The scene takes place in the dead of night, but because, in film, there must be some light, I was left somewhat in the dark!]

5 Responses to Army of Shadows

  1. Man of Roma says:

    A very well written review. Many subtle observations, one really feels while reading this ‘shadows atmosphere’. And I wonder where you get the beautiful pictures of your movie reviews.

  2. lichanos says:

    Hi, MoR:

    Hope you had a wonderful break!

    This is truly a remarkable film – for me, anyway. Sometimes I feel I am too much drawn towards the bleak, fatalistic view of existence, but there you go…

    I use a freeware video player to get stills from DVD recordings of films. Windows Media won’t allow that. I find it sometimes plays discs that are blocked for some annoying reason with commercial players on my laptop. Check out

  3. Man of Roma says:

    Hi Lichanos

    Yes, I did, and feel like having a second one lol.

    Also the layout of your reviews posts is great.

    VLC … I know it and use it. It was originally conceived for Linux and similar open source Operating Systems. Didn’t know of this feature though.

    I have commented on your editorial statement you have linked to at my blog.

    The bleak view of existence. One should fight against such negative feelings, although sometimes they can be pleasurable in some weird way.

  4. lichanos says:


    Thanks for your comment. Yes, not good to get too involved in the “bleak view.” And yes, “pleasurable in some weird way.” That’s a good way of putting it!

    Regarding my “statement,” I only meant that there is a rather small audience for totally idiosyncratic commentary that is not sensational in any way. A minority taste. That’s okay.

    Sure, there are many good bloggers out there treating interesting subjects with good writing, but the ones that get lots of readers tend to be more, topical, shall we say? Nothing wrong with that, but not my thing most of the time.

  5. Man of Roma says:

    Idiosyncratic vs topical. What’s wrong in being topical, unless one is inclined to be elitist – not necessarily a bad thing. The masses do not always err in their tastes. I’ve instead been fascinated by a tradition – not Italian, we tend to elitism – in which the intellectuals and the masses do not diverge so much. Only the catholic Church here is a *formidable* (and thousand-year old) example of that, but I’m not a Catholic.

    It could be because I was a teacher for 30 years. My problem in classroom always was basically this: how to make abstruse topics appetible to my pupils. I believe that when a brain gets lit it learns better (and quicker.)

    Which doesn’t save me most of the time from being boring, abstruse. Even snobbish and arrogant sometimes, alas.

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