The great French director Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge) is said to have bristled at the suggestion that his 1969 adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s novel about a band of French Resistance fighters during World War II presented its characters in much the same light as the wily con men and hoods who populated Melville’s better-known gangster films. Helping to cement the connection, no doubt, was the presence of stars Lino Ventura (as the brave civil engineer Philippe Gerbier) and Paul Meurisse (as organization head Luc Jardie), who just three years earlier had played the escaped con and the commissaire hot on his trail in the diabolical cat-and-mouse game of Melville’s Le Deuxième Soufflé. Yet I can think of no higher praise for Army of Shadows than to say that it approaches its pulse-quickening tale of life in the underground in the same exacting way Melville rendered so many stories of life in the underworld. As with the ascetic criminals he couldn’t resist mythologizing, Melville — who, like Kessel, had been a member of the Resistance himself — sees the brave rebels as steely men of action (and women, hence the unforgettable Simone Signoret as the resourceful Mathilde), operating outside the law and according to their own strict codes, never allowing emotion to cloud their judgment. The result is a brilliant and relentless thriller, painted in Melville’s trademark shades of charcoal and midnight blue, marked by daring escapes, unimaginable moments of self-sacrifice and unconscionable acts of betrayal. At its center rests the granite-featured Ventura, his final meeting with a once-trusted compatriot on a Paris street a chilling reminder that, in wartime, even mercy is brutal. Presented in a new 35 mm print, the film is being released in the U.S. for the first time thanks to the invaluable Rialto Pictures. (Royal; Playhouse 7)
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