- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

The French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville eventually was regarded as a specialist in crime melodrama. The association can prove misleading, even though this genre accounts for more than half of his 14 features.

For many years, only one Melville picture was familiar in American art houses: his 1950 adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles,” which predated the shift to crime fiction by half a decade.An exaggerated reverence attends countless examples of “film noir,” including the Melville gangster staples, from “Bob le Flambeur” to “Le Cercle Rouge,” which remained obscure in the U.S. until after his death.

A persuasive case can be made that World War II was the most imposing influence on Mr. Melville’s life and career.The war — and particularly the harrowing effects of the German occupation in France — is reflected in three titles conveniently spaced from the beginning to near the end of his filmography: “La Silence de la Mer,” the first Melville feature, shot in 1947 and released two years later; “Leon Morin, Priest” (1961); and “Army of Shadows,” which opened in Paris in 1969.

Very belatedly, the haunting and valedictory “Shadows” has been acquired by an American distributor, Rialto Pictures.The movie’s Washington unveiling is being shared by the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Landmark E Street Cinema. While still bearing his original last name, Grumbach, Mr. Melville (1917-73) served in the French army in 1940. After demobilization, he was an early recruit to Resistance organizations and became part of Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s apparatus after a mission to London in 1942. Detained for a time by the Spanish government, he made his way to Tunisia and served with Free French forces in both Italy and southern France in 1944. By that time, he had replaced a temporary alias, Cartier, with a permanent one, Melville, in homage to the great American writer.

Both “Silence” and “Shadows” derived from novels that proved enduring testaments to Resistance sentiment.They surfaced in the early 1940s, clandestinely in France.The former dealt with the demoralization of a German officer billeted with a widower and his niece in a remote French village.

“Army of Shadows,” which alludes to full-time members of the French Resistance during a short and discouraging period of the war — October 1942 to February 1943 — distilled episodes from a novel by Joseph Kessel, a journalist whose work often served as cinematic source material. “Shadows” had a mixed reception in France in the aftermath of President de Gaulle’s political setbacks and retirement.As usual, American distributors let it slide.Perhaps the absence of pitched battle scenes between dauntless Maquis units and overmatched German troops — a spectacle that would have been preposterous in the time frame of “Shadows” — influenced the American brushoff. Some movies are better suited for posterity than their original release dates, and Mr. Melville’s ominously powerful saga might have met less sales resistance as a contemporary of “The Longest Day” rather than “Z” and “Medium Cool.”

“Army of Shadows” dwells on characters who have little chance of surviving deadly circumstances. Mr. Melville immerses the audience in impressions of hardship and peril, with scant compensation of an intrepid or swashbuckling nature.We contemplate a selection of sinister, fatalistic basics of belonging to a Resistance network.The mood seldom ceases to be ominous, sometimes unbearably so.Entrapment is a double-edged menace, deriving from both sworn adversaries and failures of trust and planning within the resistance network.

The movie begins with a principal character, Lino Ventura’s Gerbier, already under arrest and en route to a Vichy concentration camp.Hard-bitten and resourceful, Gerbier remains the film’s pivotal example of dedication, tenacity and expedient ruthlessness.His escape from the Hotel Majestic in Paris, while awaiting interrogation, is a brilliantly orchestrated suspense sequence.It culminates in a sudden act of violence that really does take your breath away, even though the director prepares for the impact very deliberately, forming a kind of pictorial noose with a looping shift of camera position.

Mr. Ventura is supplemented by several counterparts — a cherubic Paul Meurisse, dapper Jean-Pierre Cassel, downcast Paul Crauchet and wearily resolute Simone Signoret, whose slim and girlish legs look ill-suited to her stout upper body.Methodically, the episodes encompass captivity, escape, recruitment, betrayal, execution, an expedition to London, a return via parachute drop, missions both futile and successful, further capture and betrayal.

Mr. Melville fails to touch a few bases that would seem appropriate and even diverting, such as Resistance hold-ups that enjoyed the connivance of their nominal targets. He shortchanges some aspects that would enhance the sense of dread and isolation, such as, for example, agents in league with the Resistance who also retain essential prewar jobs and respectable identities.

He also may miss some bets about the corrosive nature of deception and suspicion in any clandestine organization.No operative who escaped from custody or was released after interrogation could be trusted entirely. Nevertheless, “Shadows” seems vividly and gravely embedded in a period when the Resistance could anticipate more desperation than hope. Jean-Pierre Melville seems profoundly aware of the risks and sacrifices demanded of “first responders” in a national crisis. The struggle he recalls was likely to be unforgiving.

***1/2TITLE: “Army of Shadows”

RATING:No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, with episodes of incisive graphic violence in a wartime setting)

CREDITS:Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Screenplay by Mr. Melville, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel.Cinematography by Pierre Lhomme.Art direction by Theo Meurisse.Music by Eric de Marsan.In French and German with English subtitles

ORIGINAL RELEASE: September, 1969, in Paris

RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes

WEB SITE: www.rialto pictures .com

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