Army of Shadows (1969) movie poster

(1969) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 06/27/06 at Balboa Theater, San Francisco, CA

The Balboa Theater has become a great repertory cinema of late and is starting to get the buzz. There have been more and more films playing there that I have wanted to go and see, but hadn’t been able to pull off. It felt great to get over to that little Outer Richmond District neighborhood and get to see a recently released print of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film about the French Resistance during WWII.

Melville made a number of significant cinematic works, Bob le flambeur (1955), Le Cercle rouge (1970), Le Samouraï (1967), and many feel that Army of Shadows ranks right up there with them. It’s hard to argue with, in that it is an excellent film, much more earnest and poignant in many ways than the others which fall into more flamboyant genres.

It’s an interesting war film, a perspective that I have never seen, that of the ordinary French underground, populated by regular people in suits and trench coats, rather than stiff, uniformed soldiers or other types of the War genre. The film never speaks of nationalism per se either, which is very interesting. No moments of “We must fight to save France from the Occupation or from the Germans!” No pandering asides. In fact, the protagonist’s alliance is to the leader of the resistance, a somber math theorist turned resistance leader.

They operate in the shadows, in the underground, but in the actuality of France, in Paris, in Lyon, in Marseilles. In their trench coats and hats they have an air of noirish figures in a Kafka-esque world that is filled with real danger and ruthlessness.

There are some great scenes: the parachute jump, the barbershop, the run from the firing squad, but this is not an action film, and the violence and deaths that come are tough and realistic.

Melville served in the war and one could imagine that this film had a personal significance perhaps, though there is this very “French” indifference or lack of sentimentality or existentialism or something hard to pin down that gives this film much of its tone and character.

There is a lot here to work with, and it’s an excellent film.