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L'Armée des Ombres is not nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. For a long time incredibly difficult to track down unless you speak French and overshadowed by the reputations of Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge and Bob le Flambeur, it's by far Jean-Pierre Melville's most heartfelt and powerful film. The resistance is as much a part of Melville as cinema - Melville was one of the false names he used during the war - and this is a film that feels as if it has been lived by the people making it: it's not so much a tribute as a confession of guilt. Although the gangster parallels are there, it's not an affectation: after the war, many resistance figures famously put their newly learned talents to use by either going into crime or politics. Melville went into movies.

His protagonists aren't action heroes. They don't blow up trains or bridges. They deliver radios and spend more time killing each other than killing Germans. Indeed, the film's four month timespan from October 1942 to February 1943 covers a moral journey that sees them go from killing traitors to killing friends. Many of their plans fail, their gestures often futile as it becomes clear that these people will never live to see the liberation - something brought tragically to light in the film's final moments that carry a real emotional punch absent in Melville's other work. The final image of the Arc de Triomphe glimpsed furtively through the windscreen of a car hurrying away from the murder of a friend is a solemn and bitter one: this is the human cost of victory. (The sequence originally ended with a shot of German troops parading down the Champs Elysee, emphasizing that nothing has changed, but the shot was moved to the opening of the film, acting both as historical scene-setter and leitmotif bookend.)

These people are afraid and ashamed, but that's what makes them so truly heroic and their inevitable fate so truly tragic. They don't need speeches or backstory - they are ennobled by their actions, futile or not.

Irony abounds. In the opening scenes, Lino Ventura's civil engineer and suspected resistance fighter is sent to a barely finished P.O.W. camp built by the French for German prisoners they never got the chance to capture and is now the exclusive domain of patriots, communists and fools waiting `to be broken.' Jean-Pierre Cassel, having eluded Nazi search parties, is stopped by gendarmes on the lookout for black market goods who ignore the radio transmitters he openly and casually shows them before waving him on his way. Even capture is as likely to come from a random identity check at a restaurant serving black market beef as it is from an informer.

It's the kind of film that gives low-key moviemaking a good name. As the film's composer Eric Demarsan noted, "I was struck by the strength of the silences, the looks, the waiting moments." Along with a great use of locations that are deliberately empty to emphasise the loneliness of the life they find themselves in, there's a wonderful use of sound and stillness: a daring attempt to rescue one of their number from an SS prison is played mostly in silence interrupted only by the constant clicking and unclicking of automated locks. When one character is seized, it is so quick and so silent that it is over almost before we know it, with only his signature hat left in the street to show he was ever there. The only `big' moment in the score is the use of Morton Gould's Re-Spirituals in the build-up to the chicken-run scene, underscoring Gerbier's desperate mental efforts to avoid death by an act of will. It sounds melodramatic, but it works, not least because of the sudden violence of the silence that ends it, heralding the end of hope.

Nothing feels sensationalized. Even murder is treated in a coldly matter of fact manner as a practical problem as much as a moral one. You have to kill a man, but you can't use a gun because the walls are paper-thin and it will alert the neighbors. What do you do? How do you rationalize killing a friend? And at what cost? All become more disturbing because they feel all-too real.

Some of the special effects are primitive even for their day, but it doesn't matter: you forgive them because you buy into the characters and the reality of their situation absolutely. And although the London sequences have problems, not least the embarrassingly Christ-like approach to filming De Gaulle, they are an interesting inversion of the French scenes. Here the war is fought noisily and openly with air raids and burning buildings, yet the traditionally repressed British still let their hair down - something Gerbier (Lino Ventura), having lived in secret for so long, cannot. He is left alone at the door to a pub, unable to join in, quietly leaving before anyone even notices him. In France, the war is fought in silence and in shadows, and it is the French who repress their every emotion. One character is even unable to confide in his own brother, completely unaware that his sibling is actually the head of his resistance group.

Even the smallest characters are splendidly drawn, from the gendarme accompanying Gerbier to the prison camp to Serge Reggiani's great matter-of-fact cameo as a barber who displays Vichy posters but holds De Gaullist sympathies. The film is so well cast that you believe in these people on sight. But quietly towering over them all is Ventura in his best performance, with a warmth that is not overt but still there, as well as a weakness - his shame at running at the behest of a sadistic German officer is all too convincing. Indeed, for all the undoubted right of their cause, the unifying feature of the main characters is their growing sense of shame.

Sobering, powerful and very moving - with the only one of Melville's pre-destined endings that is, offering no resolution, only damnation and the promise of death - L'Armee des Ombres is a genuine tragedy.

Although not as extras-packed as Criterion's US NTSC DVD, for once the BFI have put some real effort into a DVD with this one. As well as a fine widescreen transfer, there's an informative audio commentary by Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau, a 33-minute wartime documentary Le Journal de la Résistance, a 4-minute extract from Chroniques de France - Jean-Pierre Melville: Filmmaker during the film's producton, the original French theatrical trailer and 20-page booklet (all but the booklet have been carried ver to the Optimum reissue). Unmissable.
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"...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.
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"L'armée des ombres" was made in 1969 to tell the true story of part of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of World War II. It centres around Philippe Gerbier and his cell of operatives. He is given up by a traitor and sent to a concentration camp, but he manages to escape and takes up the fight again.

This documents the very real way that they had to operate and it is done in a completely unvarnished way. They had to be ruthless but often lacked the efficiency and / or training to do things properly. It is filmed in a way that emphasises the coldness of the time. There is a constant sense of unease and looming disaster throughout that keeps you entranced. At one point Gerbier says `all debts are paid in the end' in a prophetic statement of their inevitable fate.

Starring screen great Lino Ventura as Gerbier who apparently refused to talk directly to the director for the duration of filming. Brilliantly supported by Simone Signoret as Mathilde in a role where she simply steals every scene and this is where minimalism is the by word, so some achievement. There are a number of films that all cinephiles need to see and I believe that this is arguably one of them it is certainly one of French cinemas finest films and a very fitting tribute to the members of the Resistance that are depicted here.
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The topic of the film is an operations unit of the French Resistance. The film covers a wide range of activities having an almost documentary feel to it: operatives attack targets, including murdering an informer, spring their comrades from jail, and in turn kill those comrades when they break. There is nothing sentimental about the film and it is a specific against the 'Allo 'Allo view of the war. The storytelling is well paced, including some actions that lead nowhere. This must have been a very powerful film when it was first shown, and it retains much of its power today, aided by the presence of Lino Ventura as Gerbier.
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on 11 April 2007
The film is based on a book purporting to be a true story of the French Resistance during the occupation. Apart from an escape sequence that strains credulity, this may well be so. The necessary ruthlessness of the Resistance is not disguised, there is a manual strangulation of a collaborator and the shooting of a loved and respected colleague exposed to blackmail by the Nazis. It should be seen by anyone interested in the period. The name Melville is a guarantee of taut and skilful direction.
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on 25 June 2007
"LArmee Des Ombres' is a blue film, blue like early 20th. century Picasso paintings, as blue as a Billie Holiday torch song. Set over a year in Occupied France, Melville, like his name sake offers a polylogical view of the confinement of a nation ( we are afforded the intimacy of more than one point of view by the director's use of voice overs), a confinement in familiar surroundings, a homeland no longer deserving of the name, and it this uncanny sense of space that adds the weight of art to his view of the world set apart from time but not history.

Melville has captured a distinct sense of melancholy, the melancholy that Freud so brilliantly analysis es. His shadow army, seen from the distance of twenty years, inhabits his melancholic vision, a world lost but forever present in the psyche of France. This melancholia, that affords a critical distance is especially important for the central character Gerbier (Lino Ventura), perfectly realised by Ventura who in his acting exemplifies the withdrawl of melancholy, it is as though the actor creates the scintilla of distance between himself and the character he plays and it is just this space that allows us to enter into Meville's penumbrated world. And not just Gerbier but the other characters, Felix (Paul Crauchet), for all the world Magritte's perpetual man in the street, bowler-hatted and just this side of absurd, Simone Signoret's haunting and memorable Mathilde a woman perpetually at the edge of an unasked question, this troupe are positioned in the mise en scene like sentient chess pieces waiting for the hand of fate to deal them their inevitable heroic ends.

Melville's camera, deftly deployed by Pierre L'homme, drifts and prowls in the long blue night of France's principle cities, a cartographer of the invisible gaze. There is throughout the sense of a world under scrutiny, never before have I so keenly been made aware of what it might mean to always assume that you are watched. Even when in the open, the film alternates between the city and the countryside, both equally desolate as though expressing the emptiness of the people caught in this struggle, the rain swept, blue tinged meadows have the strange quality of something under investigation.

Made in the 60s and sometimes accused of an apology for Gaullism, it is a film that has not yet ready to mourn, it is as though Melville has caught the world of shadows, not the shadows of light but the shadows of the not yet lost, a film that calls to the past in a desire to understand the moment in time when people must act beyond their own sense of themselves, even when they acknowledge their own mortal stupidity. There are two moments when the two central characters, only central because they bear the weight of self-recognition, Gerbier and Mathilde, confront their existential reality, at these moments Melville allows us to peek into the soul, both actors offer us a version of that moment when we accidentally catch a glimpse of ourselves in a mirror and mistake the image for someone else.

I wonder if this film, in the 60s at least, didn't have the same effect on the French audience, maybe all great art achieves this, Melville's certainly does, a blue vision of ourselves in the shadowed night, touching, yet completely lacking in sentimentality, classical in construction, yet challenging, a masterpiece.
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Slow, brooding, overcast, filled with muted colourful scenes that echo across the channel; walking through caked mud, cuckoos, the winding roads...but there it stops.

This follows a group of men and women who live forever on the edge of a precipice. Each moment is savoured as the full intensity of being alive, is brought home every ticking second. Under the cosh of the German regime, surveillance, the look for anything that disturbs the pre set rhythms is taken away to one of 49 concentration camps, bespoked in France for closer inspection. We are taken to one at the beginning of the film. Jews, gypsies, communists, Spaniards, every nationality is pushed together as suspected agents of pre collaborationist France. Meanwhile we see the French police act with both "could not care less," the journey in the van to a more intense zeal when they realise who Gerbier is, within the camp.

Escape is forever dominating the mind and taking chances in the mid period of collaboration entailed risks of being denounced as everyone had to play the double game, outward Vichy, inward freedom from constraint.

Later we learn Gerbier is denounced from the beginning taken from the camp he awaits his fate in the hotel. Interrogation and death is the outcome, either through beating or being sent East to be gassed. Each moment ticks, as he weighs up his chances, the suspended moments before having to act.

In the end the pull of life over power the feelings of inertia, he acts and he flees. The resistance is filled with moments of headbutting the partition wall of naked power, and often coming away battered bruised and life sentenced. French Collaborators and German Gestapo weed out those who do not wish to stay within the Vichy confines and this is the essence of the "game."

Recruting like minded others, trust has to be the crucial invisible entity that binds them altogether. Any sniff that trust is about to be broken and this sends paroxysms down the nervous system. Without trust they are all vulnerable and open to annihilation. The film makes this point succinctly throughout.

Counterpoints to the break of trust are the new found allies, former rightists who detest the direction the country has undertaken and seek to support the new liberatory effort. Everyone plays double, triple games whilst holding onto an inner core of wanting to transcend the immediate situation. No trains are blown or banks robbed but there are quiet murders, that throw the stomach of the participants into their mouths. Real killing is never a computer game walkover, it entails feeling the full impact of taking a life which haunts the subsequent dreams.

Walking through checkpoints and learning to play out of the stereotype and into another, having the front to walk through the iron gates of confinement, to play the bluff for the most dire of consequences. Planning and acting are the themes along with the bonds of mutuality. For the resistance as we see when Gerbier comes to London, act for the cause of life rather than death, biophilia rather than necrophilia. Transfixed when seeing the beauty of women dancing in a dim nightclub whilst the bombs fall on rationale for the struggle emerges, apart from the sense of burning resentment.

A haunting meticulous film, based on the mundanity of resistance, building up the trust, taking risks and being caught, then facing the final consequences. This is when you really begin to know your friends and the true value of comradeship. In moments like these when each life hangs to the others by a thread of connection, the tiniest vibration sends off a shudder. Meanwhile those who have power extract through the tiniest chinks in the armour their utmost revenge for any resistance.

A great film that works as a historical document and allegory about standing up to brutal power. A film that plays on the senses as the end, what ever the outcome is never going to be resettling into domesticity. Every sense heightened for months on end will create a new vista of meaning.

The film is an entrance point into this world, created by someone who inhabited the psychology of the era. More than worth any effort, this rewards anyone who enters into this arena. This is no uniform fetishist adolescent tea party; the real heroes look like bank clerks or road diggers, not the blond beasts of incessant inner propaganda.
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"...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. The Criterion edition has an excellent DVD transfer, a commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau, a booklet in the DVD case and a second disc filled with extras.
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on 26 August 2013
This is the complete long version of the film (145 min.), very different from the italian very short version (100 min.). Every great and complex masterpiece, like this film misunderstood in the 1969, needs to be seen intierely, without cuts.
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on 15 February 2011
I was desperate to like this. Desperate. I guess it's still worth your attention. However, despite all the hype, I have to admit to some disappointment; the way the camera moves around made me think of the 'emphatic' moves the camera makes in certain international co-productions or The Persuaders. It was never boring. It's not pretentious. There are moments of tension and a sense of reality. But, the London interlude strikes me as odd. We dwell on the name of the street to show it's London. We see a figure of de Gaulle coming into the room to embrace the hero. There are double yellow lines. I could be wrong, but was that part of the decor of London streets in 1942? The haircuts are too sixties. The German soldiers are thin French drama students in ill-fitting uniforms, they're about as frightening as, well a bunch of drama students from the 1960s. There are some fine contemplative moments and the acting is good on the whole. I was thinking of Verhoeven's similar Black Book which was so much more visceral. Melville had been contemplating this for 25 years! It's worth watching without doubt. I'm missing something I feel. The artistry which you can see in Le Doulos doesn't seem to be there. Maybe it should be in black and white. And how do the three resistance fighters (including Simome Signoret as a nurse) get into Gestapo HQ without the two blokes SAYING anything. And how does she have a convincing German accent when it's already been made clear that a convincing accent is required in occupied France. The Canadian airmen think they can get away with it but are told they'll be detected. Too many holes.
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