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Army of Shadows (Reissue)
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and based on a novel by Josepeh Kessel, 1969's Army Of Shadows begins when a French man named Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is hauled into an internment camp in the Nazi occupied France of 1942. Here he meets a few of his bunkmates and befriends a young communist who helps him plan an escape. Before that happens, however, he's released. He winds up back in Marseille where he reconnects with members of The French Resistance whose first order of the day is to execute a member of their own group who, under pressure from German forces, essentially squealed on them. As the walls in the building as ‘paper thin' and there's no good knife around, the young man is strangled, his body left covered on a mattress in the corner of the room.
From here we get to know some of Gerbier's collaborators such as Le Masque (Claude Mann), Madame Mathilde (Simone Signoret), Jean-Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), his brother Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier), some using codenames even amongst themselves in order to shield their true identities. They do what they can when they get their orders to wreak havoc with the Nazi's as best as they're able to, but of course, all of this is done in secrecy and under the very real threat of the Gestapo. Some members will quit, will get captured and some will be executed but during all of this Gerbier does what he can to see that his convictions remain strong The Resistance operational.
Army Of Shadows is a fascinating mix of optimism and fatalism, an extremely methodical film that portrays some very complicated characters dealing with even more complicated situations in ways that make them (mostly) sympathetic and believable. There are moral quandaries all through the film, situations that make us questions not just the actions of the characters that we get to know in the film but maybe, if we get involved with the picture to the right degree, what we might do should we replace them in that situation. As such, the movie gives viewers a lot to think about, as we see them live through and with the repercussions of their actions. All of what they do is done under the constant threat of death. One mistake, one slip up, could mean the death of one or many, which is why they try and keep each other in the dark about their personal lives and true identities as much as possible. It's not done out of any antisocial tendencies but out of the need for survival.
Despite their vague identities, these characters are complex and the performances are strong enough to bring those complexities to life. Lino Ventura is essentially the film's lead and he is excellent here, bringing a palpable sense of seriousness to the role that would seem necessary in order to pull it off. His work here is intense, sometimes quite brooding, and always expertly acted. Thankfully he's surrounded by a cast equally as good, he and Simone Signoret (the only female in the film given a role of any substance, and an actress instantly identifiable as the lead in Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1955 classic Diabolique) in particular have an interesting chemistry, the film maybe hinting at something romantic between them in one scene where she holds his hand. We won't spoil things here but it benefits the audience to pay attention to their interactions in particular, as they certainly resonate when the film finishes. Paul Meurisse (who acted alongside Signoret in the amazing Diabolique), Jean-Pierre Cassel, Claude Mann, Paul Crauchet (who would work with Melville a few years later on Un Flic and Le Cercle Rouge) and Christian Barbier are also very good here, each one crafting an interesting and unique character and, again, like Ventura, convincing us that what we're seeing is believable. It's also interesting to note that Jess Franco regular Howard Vernon is credited with doing some of the English dialogue featured in the film.
Production values are typically very strong. Like a few other Melville pictures, Army Of Shadows does feature some miniature work that isn't entirely convincing but otherwise, the film looks great. Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz's cinematography is atmospheric and slick, and the score from Éric Demarsan is excellent.
Army Of Shadows comes back to Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection on 50GB discs in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.85.1 widescreen with the feature taking up just under 31GBs of space on the disc. The slight green tint from the 2011 Blu-ray now leans slightly blue and the bit rate is slightly higher than the older disc, otherwise the differences are negligible. There are small white specks here and there once in a while, but otherwise no real print damage to discuss at all. The film's color scheme is intentionally dark, there aren't a lot of bright colors here, but everything is reproduced quite naturally. Black levels are solid and the disc is well authored in that there are noticeable compression problems. The image is also, thankfully, free of any obvious noise reduction of edge enhancement issues, this always looks nice and film-like.
Audio options are provided in French language LPCM and DTS-HD Mono tracks, both of them 24-bit. Optional subtitles are provided in English only. There wasn't any discernible difference between the two tracks while switching back and forth between them, they both sound very good. Dialogue is clean, clear and nicely balanced and the impressive and evocative score used in the film has excellent range and depth to it. The levels are fine and there are no issues at all with any hiss, distortion or sibilance.
Extras start off with Audio commentary from the 2006 DVD release featuring film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, who wrote Jean-Pierre Melville: An American In Paris It's an excellent breakdown of the film and the history that inspired it, including insight into Melville's own experiences during the Second World War. In addition to plenty of information about the director and his life and times, we're also give lots of details about the cast and crew that worked on the picture with him and plenty of insight into the effectiveness of the picture. It's quite an interesting talk.
Criterion also provides some valuable archival featurettes, starting with the four-minute Jean-Pierre Melville The Filmmaker in which the director spends a few minutes explaining where the inspiration for the picture came from and offers some details on crafting the film. Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme spends fourteen-minutes talking about working on the film with Melville, having to improvise on set to get him what he wanted and some of the ideas he was able to bring to the shoot to achieve that. L'invite du Dimanche is a half-hour episode of a French television show in which Melville appears as a guest and talks about making this film along with some of the cast and more, this is very interesting stuff. There's also an eleven-minute interview with editor Françoise Bonnot wherein the working relationship that came to be between she and the film's director is covered.
The 2005 featurete Jean-Pierre Melville et L'armée des ombres runs twenty-eight-minutes and is made up of interviews with Lhomme, Bonnot, Jean Pierre-Cassel, composer Eric Demarsan and filmmakers Philippe Labro and Bernard Tavernie discussing the importance of Melville's work, and specifically of this picture, as well as its history. It lends a lot of very honest insight into what it might have been like to work with Melville.
Complimenting this is Le journal de la Résistance, a thirty-four-minute documentary short from 1944 that was shot on the front lines towards the end of the German occupation of France. It does an impressive job of depicting the frequently harrowing conditions that surrounded all of this, and it is quite grim in that regard, but so too is it an important document. Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac is five-minutes' of interview clips that is quite interesting as it lets Signoret talks about her character and then lets Aubrac, who was the basis for that character, talk about her cinematic depiction. Ourve le guillements is a twenty-three-minute piece that was taken from a French television broadcast from 1973 where actual members of the French Resistance share stories about their own experiences trying to outdo the Nazi's during the occupation, which is quite interesting.
Finishing up the extras on the disc are a seven-minute restoration demonstration by L'homme, a U.S premiere trailer, an original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection.
Additionally, Criterion provides an insert booklet containing credits for the feature and the presentation as well as technical notes on the disc alongside an essay by critic Amy Taubin, a second essay by historian Robert O. Paxton and excerpts from Rui Nogueira's book Melville on Melville.
Army Of Shadows is, like many of Jean-Pierre Melville's films, a slow and extremely methodical film as obsessed with detail as it is with narrative but it's also extremely well-made and very, very well-acted. It is both tense and emotionally involving. The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray reissue looks and sounds great and is loaded with extras. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.