Army of Shadows L’armée des ombres (1969)

It is what one could expect if Hitchcock and le Carré had a French cousin.  Except this cousin is the synergy of Joseph Kessel and Jean-Pierre Melville.  And it would be like if this relative looked at the tension and grim realism of his cousins and decided they were too soft and light-hearted.

It really is an amazing movie to watch, the direction and film-making are incredible – particularly for 1969.  It’s just so goddamn bleak and depressing!  Melville had an incredible personal story of his own but to take Kessel’s work and do such an amazing job of putting it on the screen was very impressive.  There’s a couple editing quirks or vague points in the narrative but the portrayal of realistic people in these impossible situations overwhelmed many of the obvious flaws to me.  One problem that some may argue with is that I didn’t always understand where the plot was going.  It’s a hard movie to just turn on and enjoy.  Now that I’ve seen it, I may one day go back and watch it again with a much better understanding of the story but don’t let that dissuade you from seeing Army of Shadows for the first time.

It is spies, it is the French Resistance, it is gritty realism and terrible circumstances of tension but the bleak implacable nature of Gerbier drives everything.  It is less as a “spy movie” as it would have been known in the Bond-fetish 60’s but more as an almost documentary style story that makes it hard to remember that it’s fiction.  It’s fiction based on factual circumstances but the characters become so very real that it is hard not to believe these events happened as portrayed.

I’ll leave it to the professional critics and film students to wrangle out the deeper points but I’d recommend watching it at least once.  It’s a very different spy film than you will be used to but an amazing film all the same.

In testament to the art of this film, you’ll notice there are points where if you paused the movie – it would be this amazingly significant moment that would appear so very mundane out of context.  And yet, within the context of the story, a simple shot of a woman making eye contact with a man in an approaching car carries this incredible weight of meaning that one cannot ignore.


p.s. The barber (Serge Reggiani) looks like love-child of Belmondo and Mr. Bean