thu 18/07/2024

Blu-ray: Army of Shadows | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Army of Shadows

Blu-ray: Army of Shadows

Melville's French Resistance epic still shocks and thrills

Ruthlessly organised: Simone Signoret in 'Army of Shadows'

One of those rare films that leaves you speechless after the closing credits, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (L'Armée des ombres) sounds on paper as if it shouldn’t work.

Melville’s penultimate film (it was released in 1969), this World War 2 thriller unfolds at a daringly slow pace, the dialogue pared back to essentials. Melville based his screenplay on a semi-autobiographical novel by Joseph Kessel, a fictionalised account of the author’s experiences as a member of the French Resistance. The big set pieces are viscerally exciting, but the mood is subdued, cinematographer Pierre Lhomme accentuating the greys, blacks and browns of a downbeat, divided France in 1943. This was still recent history, and Melville’s supposedly positive portrayal of Charles de Gaulle (glimpsed giving a medal to Paul Meurisse’s Luc in the middle of the film) was out of step with the civil unrest of 1968, Army of Shadows receiving mixed reviews until it was re-evaluated and re-released in the 1990s.

Lino VenturaLino Ventura (pictured right) plays Resistance leader Philippe Gerbier, a dark slab of a man, his glasses and well-cut suit making him look more like an insurance salesman than a killer. Meek and taciturn whilst in an internment camp at the start, the swift, bloody dispatch of a German guard while detained in Paris shows us his mettle. This is a film about good people doing unspeakably bad things because they have to. A treacherous young agent is strangled, and one lead character is brutally assassinated near the close. Melville introduces Gerbier’s motley associates slowly. Félix (Paul Crauchet) dresses like a bank manager, and it’s he who persuades the glamorous, reckless Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to join them. There’s a thrilling, Hitchcockian scene where Jean-François arrives in Nazi-occupied Paris with a radio transmitter hidden in his suitcase and has to work out how to leave the station without being searched by German officials. Gerbier’s “Big Boss” turns out to be Luc, a softly-spoken academic, and Simone Signoret plays Mathilde, a ruthlessly organised Parisian housewife. A witty montage showing her talent for disguise offers some light relief, though, whatever the hat or wig, she still looks like Simone Signoret.

Army Shadows packshotGerbier’s visit to London coincides with Félix’s arrest and subsequent torture by the Gestapo. He makes his maiden parachute jump (glasses taped to his face so he won’t lose them – a typically telling detail) and returns to France where Mathilde plots Félix’s rescue. Which, unlike the similarly well-planned jewel heist in Le Cercle Rouge, doesn’t go to plan. Gerbier’s capture seems inevitable, Melville wrongfooting us by having him seized in an unspectacular raid by Vichy police in a Lyon bistro. Ventura shows us Gerbier’s essence in the final act - gaunt and unshaven, hiding out in a damp farmhouse with meagre supplies of tinned food and just a set of Luc’s philosophy books for company. Neatly plotted, superbly acted and visually striking, Army of Shadows holds up brilliantly, and Studio Canal’s 4k restoration looks and sounds marvellous: part-historical drama, part WW2 thriller, this is one of the great films of the 20th century.

Glasses and a well-cut suit make Gerbier look more like an insurance salesman than a killer


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters