Army of Shadows: Design for Dying

by |
12/28/2010 8:58 AM |


From tomorrow through the 4th of January, Film Forum revives Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows.

What did you do in the war, Dad? In spring of 2006, Film Forum premiered Rialto’s reissue of the long unavailable Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville’s autobiographically informed epic of the French resistance, 37 years after it was released in France and nearly 33 years after Melville’s death, and suddenly, the ineffable, geometrical, stoical cool of his gangster movies gained a personal resonance previously unimagined. Here, as in Bob the Gambler or Le Samourai or Le Cercle Rouge, were trenchcoated outlaws enacting macho honor codes with an understatement that you could call Zen—not because Melville was filling in a philosophical backstory for the fetishized gestures of American B-movies, but because resigned fatalism really is the only way to go when enlist for a war you’ve no choice but to fight and no chance to survive. Melville, an insurgent in his own country during the German occupation, didn’t learn all his best moves from the movies after all.

The movie’s one act of if-you-only-knew heroism after another—the last-billed cast member, who appears just once, in the first scene, is “The Unnamed Patriot”—and if it was an American movie you’d wonder whether the fedoras, cigarettes, and terse dialogue weren’t brainwashing you for some Greatest Generation ball-washing, only this isn’t an American movie, and couldn’t be, because everyone in it knows they’re going to die. And that’s what Army of Shadows is about, mostly: broad, bespectacled Lino Ventura and dashing, ultimately substantial Jean-Pierre Cassel and iron-matronly Simone Signoret choose less to fight the Germans than to be killed by them. Maybe all Melville movies are about how to arrange the best possible death.