Melville's heroes -- led by a short, rotund, bespectacled man who carries a briefcase and speaks as if conserving his last reserves of emotion -- engage in little of what counts for action these days. And yet Army of Shadows is deeply engrossing -- and deep in numerous other ways one scarcely encounters at the movies anymore.
Melville, a cinephile and amateur filmmaker in childhood, was drafted into the French army in 1937 at the age of 20. The pursuit of his passion thus cruelly interrupted, Melville -- who changed his name from Grumbach to reduce the risk of persecution -- became involved in the resistance (to a degree that remains unclear, even to his biographers), emerging thereafter with a series of films whose stylistic tension seems to reflect his experience of movie love torn apart by the ravages of war. Over time, the innovative mix of nostalgia and realism in Melville's trademark gangster movies -- beginning in the mid-'50s with the proto-New Wave crime caper Bob le Flambeur -- increasingly came to favor the latter half of the equation: Escapism in Melville's cinema inevitably gives way to existentialism; pure entertainment becomes unattainable. Army of Shadows pointedly includes a brief scene of two underground operatives discussing life-and-death matters in the office of a Marseille talent agent, the men surrounded by images of nightclub performers, whose frivolity appears a quaint relic of a distant world.
Like casual conversation, conventional storytelling is a privilege that's lost amid the occupation; even plotting remains out of reach in a movie where the heroes can only scramble to escape imprisonment, to meet in secret, to forestall their demise in excruciatingly unknown increments. The aforementioned leader of the cell, Gerbier (Lino Ventura), is introduced in handcuffs taking a ride to a Vichy internment camp that his captor obnoxiously describes as comfortable, "made for Germans"; soon after arriving, he sees a fellow prisoner being carried out by the Gestapo on a stretcher. Gerbier manages to break free, briefly taking refuge in the chair of a silent barber, whose blade could be used either for shaving or slaying. (Melville's suspense in this scene is Hitchcockian in its mastery.)
But Gerbier will be apprehended again and forced even more savagely to reckon with the knowledge that any breath could be his last -- that even if he escapes once again, his group's survival will require him to execute some of those closest to him, those who have earlier saved his own life. In place of ordinary narrative, Melville's stifling mood approximates the psychological condition of a hunted animal -- an animal further tortured by the full awareness of what awaits him. Ventura, an actor whose great stoneface makes him the Buster Keaton of war films, ironically uses his implacable demeanor to increase the poignancy of this movie about men whose very humanity has been sent underground.
Among those men, crucially, there's also a woman -- a brilliant and dedicated operative named Mathilde (Simone Signoret), whose desire to retain some emotional connection to the past serves as a thin ray of light in this world of shadows. In one of countless scenes where communication between the survivors is stripped by necessity to the barest detail, Mathilde dares to show Gerbier a billfold photograph of her 17-year-old daughter, a lovely girl whom she can no longer visit. "You shouldn't carry that," says Gerbier, mindful of the risk that familial attachment can bring to the group. "You're right," she replies, swiftly stuffing the photo into her coat. The moment is devastating -- in part for its suggestion that Melville, too, had kept elements of his life hidden away, yet close enough for him and his audience (or some of that audience, anyway) to retrieve at will.
Army of Shadows, first seen in France at the tail end of the auteur's career as a heady purveyor of gangster cool, was dismissed by French critics for allegedly bringing a hardboiled aesthetic to a story whose true horrors warranted greater gravity. It's a ridiculous charge, one that may have been informed by lingering French guilt over the occupation. In fact, what the film reveals quite clearly is that all of Melville's movies about fatalistic tough guys were tales of occupation and resistance: Some of them were simply forced to work in disguise.