The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Army of Shadows

Having seen three of French director's Jean-Pierre Melville's films in recent weeks, I wanted to check out the one that's often labeled his best, a WWII French resistance movie called Army of Shadows. This isn't your typical portrayal of French resistance fighters, no gorgeous women in black berets, tight, black sweaters and red lipstick, no macho killing machines with bandoleers across their chests. These were real people with fears and worries as they went about their jobs trying to do their best to slow down the German war effort.

The movie has very little action and in style terms is very similar to the other Melville films I saw. Dialogue seems to be used as a last resort with whole scenes with only a few words spoken, instead looks are exchanged and long tracking shots of characters moving keep the story going. One painfully tense scene involves two prisoners under guard speaking in French so the German won't understand them. Hearing them, we know their desperate plan to escape, but a camera pan around the little room while waiting for the move has the scene dripping with tension. Another scene in one long shot is the Germans entering Paris in 1940. It goes on for minutes as a column and band comes into frame far off in the distance and then approaches the camera. It's only as the lead soldier is about to step on the camera the shot freezes and the opening credits roll. The shot is so simple but it looks so cool. Melville is a master at turning the simple into the supremely cool. Here's the first ten minutes.

And that's what I liked about the movie, it doesn't go for the easy story with lots of ambushes and Frenchmen gunning down hundreds of Germans. Shadows is more about the behind-the-scenes, the everyday life of the men and women of the resistance. It's a long movie at 2 hours and 25 minutes, but it moves along quickly all the way until the final, somewhat surprising cut before the credits. I guess I should have figured by now, but Melville isn't one for neat, tidy endings.

Lino Ventura is the lead here as Phillippe Gerbier, a civil engineer who escapes from the Germans after a short stay in an internment camp, not quite a concentration camp but the same idea. It's not long before he's a key member of the resistance, leading his close-knit squad of fighters. Ventura's performance is an understated but memorable one, a man who wants to get the job done whatever it may be. Paul Meurisse co-stars as Luc Jardie, the chief, the head of the resistance, an intellectual now fighting with a "carful of killers" as Gerbier says.

The rest of the team includes Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a young man looking for a way to get back at the Germans, Mathilde (Simone Signoret), the lone woman in the group who is as brave as any of the men she works with, quickly building respect/admiration, Le Masque (Claude Mann), a man who at first doesn't think he'd be able to do what is required of him but becomes as integral a part as anyone, Felix (Paul Crauchet), Gerbier's right hand man, and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), the scrounger and getaway driver. Knowing very little about these characters, I still found myself sympathizing with them, a testament to Melville's ability.

The Criterion Collection DVD, only saw Disc 1, has a menu that says Army of Shadows was not released in the U.S. until 2006. Don't miss out on your chance now to see this classic. Here's the American re-release trailer.

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