Army of Shadows (1969)

Army of Shadows (1969), written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

The French Resistance to German occupation in WW2 immediately became the stuff of legend. Only gradually as the years passed was the mythology picked apart: not everyone supported the Resistance and the nation was not unified in opposition to the invaders.

This serious, dark-toned film gives us a kind of an "underground procedural" of how war in the shadows worked. We follow a set of people who really are heroic, even if it may not seem to to them at the time. They have to do terrible things.

Critics complained that they spend more time executing traitors in their own ranks than in fighting the Germans. Said the director: this is how it was. The plot is taken from contemporary accounts. Melville adapted his screenplay from an account written during the war. The underground leader is based on Jean Cavaill├Ęs, tortured and shot by the Gestapo.

This was a case where the film did well in France but critics were able to kill its reputation. They objected to Melville's devotion to DeGaul, a wartime hero and president, but then out of favor. The film was not even shown in America until 2006, when French critics were reevaluating it.

The cinematography has that "black and white in color" look of the crime pictures Melville did just before and after this: Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). The director denied any sort of shared world view between the Resistance and crime films, but you can see a lot of overlap: tough men, violence, secret gangs, authority and counters to it.

On Blu-ray from Criterion, but now out of print. Film historian Ginette Vincendeau gives a detailed analysis, both of the film and the historical events.

The director -- born Jean-Pierre Grumbach -- picked "Melville" as his code name in the Resistance, his homage to the American writer.