Army of Shadows. 1969. France. Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Adapted from the novel by Joseph Kessel. With Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel. In French; English subtitles. 35mm. 145 min.
With Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville, the French master of the philosophical, pseudo-American gangster film, drops the metaphor of the criminal underworld and deals directly with his experiences as an underground soldier of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France. As the central figure—a resistance leader in Marseille who needs to retain absolute anonymity—Ventura hides his charisma behind a fussy mustache and a pair of glasses, yet his inner struggle seems all the more vivid for never being brought to the surface. Heroism becomes a matter of betraying moral principles in order to preserve them. The film’s remarkable low-light cinematography is by Pierre Lhomme (who supervised both the 35mm and digital restorations). Not seen in the US until Rialto’s 2006 release, Army of Shadows became one of the company’s biggest hits, dominating that year’s top-ten lists (including New York Times critic Manohla Dargis’s top pick) and receiving a special citation from the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle, a Film Heritage Award from the National Society of Film Critics, and the Best Foreign Film award from the New York Film Critics Circle—all 37 years after it was made.