Escaping from German occupied Paris in the winter of 1942, Résistance cell leader Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) heads to Marseille (part of Free France), where he reconnects with right-hand man Felix (Paul Crauchet), faithful Mathilde (Simone Signoret), Legionnaire vet Le Bison (Christian Barbier), young gun Le Masque (Claude Mann) and new recruit Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel).
He then travels to London to meet with de Gaulle and the head of the Résistance, Luc (Paul Meurisse). But his visit is cut short when Felix is captured in Lyon. Following an aborted rescue attempt, Gerbier is himself arrested by the Gestapo, but Mathilde oversees his successful escape. While hiding out in a remote farmhouse, Gerbier then learns of Mathilde’s arrest. Fearing the network could be compromised; Gerbier makes a terrible personal sacrifice…
From the chilling opening shot of German soldiers marching down the Champs-Elysees to the fatalistic final scene, Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres) is a monumental cinematic tribute to the spirit of the Résistance that deftly captures the secret world of France’s freedom fighters – ordinary folk who found the courage to commit heroic deeds.
Director Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 war drama, his third film about occupied France, draws on a successful novel (by Belle du Jour scribe Joseph Kessel), as well as his own wartime experiences, to present an honest account of these very real heroes. It’s a sublime, sombre thriller that puts the focus firmly on the resisters, methodically played by the biggest names in French cinema of the day.
It may not have been well received on its release (it came out at the same time as the 1968 student riots in Paris and when de Gaulle’s popularity was at an all-time low), but Army of Shadows has become a classic of Résistance cinema and sits alongside Meville’s La silence de la mer (1947) and his equally dark and fatalistic gangster films Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970)* as one of the finest examples of post-war French cinema and of independent film-making.
The Blu-ray release includes a restored print of the film, plus the documentary, Army of Shadows – The Hidden Side of the Story, which also features on the 2009 DVD release, and a new booklet featuring an essay by Professor Ginette Vincendeau.
In French, with subtitles.
Released 8 April 2013, from StudioCanal
(Buy it from Amazon here)
* Le Cercle rouge, Jean-Pierre Meville’s 1970 crime drama starring Alain Delon, screens at the BFI Southbank in London on 27 May and 28 May 2013.
(click here for details)