"...but I'm going to die and I'm not afraid. It's impossible not to be afraid of dying. But I'm too stubborn, too much of an animal to believe it. If I don't believe it to the very last moment, the last split second, I'll never die." This is Philippe Gerbier speaking. The time is between October, 1942 and February, 1943. He's the leader of a resistance cell in German-occupied France. He was an engineer. Now he is a hard man of skeptical intelligence. He kills a German guard with a knife to the throat so quickly and so unexpectedly it's nerve rattling. In Jean-Pierre Melville's austere, somber Army of Shadows, we follow what happens to Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and a handful of others, primarily Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a weak-seeming intellectual who turns out to be the head of resistance in France; Jean François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Luc Jardie's younger brother; and the remarkable Mathilde (Simone Signoret), resourceful with icy nerves, a woman, Gerbier tells us, who is "strong-willed, methodical and patient. She knows both how to command and how to carry out orders." For four months we watch them operating in a claustrophobic environment of matter-of-fact violence, the realities of betrayal, hiding and planning, a life without humor and only cautious trust, and above all else, the goal of killing Germans. That also means the need to kill informers, no matter how young or how respected. They will all probably die.
The movie is really a series of incidents that happen during these four months and how this group must respond: a prison camp and an escape, a shave from a barber who might be a Petainist, the killing of a young informer in an empty house when three of the resistance, including Gerbier, discover they cannot use a gun, there is no knife and finally they decide to use a towel to strangle the man. All the while, gagged and tied, the informer can hear them discuss the problem. This will be the first time any of the three have ever killed a man, and they do it. There's Mathilde's nerve in smuggling a radio through a German cordon, and her attempt to rescue a Resistance comrade from a prison where he has been tortured. There's the death of one of the four, carried out by three. Briefly, at the very end, we read of what happened to the members of this group...a cyanide pill, a beheading, tortured to death, survived. The ending is logical and incredibly sad.
One of the most effective aspects of this movie is how it concentrates on this small group of people. There are no explosions, gun fights, beatings and torture scenes, no gore, no bravado. In fact, there are comparatively few Germans. What there is is the unremitting pressure of discovery, of making a mistake, of tension, of never being able to relax. All the main characters were based on members of the French resistance. The actors are excellent. Lino Ventura dominates his scenes. Signoret is incredible.
This is tragedy, not melodrama, says Amy Taubin, author of an article which appears in the Criterion booklet. When that last note on the screen is finished, we feel exhausted. We have to remind ourselves that the right side won. Otherwise, I, at least, would feel not just respect for these men and women, but also deeply pessimistic. We've gotten to know them. Not to like them; they are too grim and dedicated for that, but to understand them to a degree. We know that if they had never existed there would have been others in their place. But I came to understand that I probably would never have had the fatalism, the nerves or the courage to undertake what they did.
Army of Shadows was shot in color, but the effect has been so deliberately muted that the movie looks as chilly and overcast as the time period.