Vive la Melville!

“Army of Shadows”

Rialto Pictures

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

Screenplay by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel

Starring: Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Paul Crachet, Christian Barbier and Claude Mann

Not Rated/140 minutes

Opened Oct. 20, 2006

Four out of four stars

Well it’s about damn time.

In 1969, Jean-Pierre Melville-the noted director of “Le Cercle Rouge” and “Le Samourai”-released “Army of Shadows,” his pseudo-noir set in occupied France during World War II. Critics and fellow filmmakers hailed it as a masterpiece, and it cemented Melville’s legacy as one of the best and most influential French filmmakers of the mid-20th century.

But the American studios decided, “Meh?moviegoers don’t want to see good movies about important political events. Plus, it has subtitles. Eww!” And so instead, they opted to let all the remaining prints sit on the shelf for the next four decades, collecting dust and disintegrating almost completely.

But finally, thanks in large part to the work of the film’s cinematographer, Pierre Lhomme, the film has been restored and released in American theaters for the first time. And it only took 37 years.

Melville has a very distinct style, using slow, meticulous pacing to create tension and utilizing a distinct minimalist aesthetic and visual style largely influenced by iconic Americana(particularly in the wardrobe department).

That style is put to great use in “Army of Shadows.” Unlike the crime epics for which he is best known, his characters this time aren’t criminals. They’re not heroes, either-they are merely men and women, French citizens all and members of the French resistance in late 1942. The French surrendered to the German occupation in 1940, and small resistance groups-fighting not only against the Nazis, but the Vichy France regime as well-have cropped up all over the country.

Among those resistance fighters are Gerbier (Lino Ventura), Felix (Paul Crachet), “Le Masque” (Claude Mann) and perhaps the most valuable member of all, the deceptively sweet Mathilde (Simone Signoret). All are working under the leadership of the “big chief,” Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse). They are the “army of shadows,” as it were, existing behind masks, phony papers and closed doors, living and working in secrecy for a cause none of them can abandon.

“Army of Shadows,” like most of Melville’s work, works as a slow burn. He has an amazing way of building suspense with the fewest of characters in the sparest of locations and finding a way to make it all radiate with an inescapable urgency. The genius of the film lies in small moments like that, which are microcosms of the bigger picture.

The film was based on Joseph Kessel’s novel, which itself was based on the author’s own memories as a member of the French resistance. What comes across on screen is something of a stark and sad reality-the characters exist in solitude and live day by day with the very real possibility of capture or betrayal. Their cause leads them to do things they can’t fathom, things they didn’t believe they could ever do-all for the greater good. The tolls such a lifestyle takes on their psyches is at the heart of the film; in this way, I was reminded of “Munich” and wondered if in fact Spielberg had been influenced at all by “Army of Shadows.”

What it all boils down to is the greater good-in this case, rising up against the fascism of the Nazi regime. We don’t get much political conjecture in the film, because that’s not really the point. What we do see is the world in which these resisters lived and what it took to stand up, however futile or destructive it may have been.

It took 37 years to finally see this story on screen, and yes, it was worth all 37.

“Oh, no-not the Moonies again!” Lino Ventura peeks through the curtains in “Army of Shadows.”