Writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (1969) opens with a powerful image: an extended take of a long line of Nazi soldiers marching in front of Paris' Arc de Triomphe. No one else can be seen in the frame, as if Paris has become a ghost town now that the German army occupies it. This scene helps remind the viewer of how evil the Nazis were as opposed to the goofy, bumbling portrayals so often seen in the media from Captain America comic books to the Hogan's Heroes television series and the Indiana Jones movies. A sense of dread permeates the entire film.
Based on author Joseph Kessel's 1943 novel of the same about his exploits and that of others in the French Resistance during WWII, the film is intriguing because Melville offers a contemplative piece presenting the daily realities Resistance members dealt with as they fought for their country as best they could under German Occupation, which was assisted by the subservient Vichy Régime.
The story begins October 20, 1942. The police have arrested Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and eventually turn him over to the Gestapo. However, he escapes the Germans, and with the help of his team, he discovers who gave his name to the authorities. They lure the traitor to his death, but in a nice plot twist, their plan to shoot him has to be altered due to the surroundings, so they improvise.
Over the next four months, Resistance members battle against the occupation as best they can. Their days are uncertain and stressful as they work in and outside the country to stay one step ahead of their enemies yet don't always succeed. It's a rough, unpredictable life as they never know if strangers are friends or enemies, never know who all their allies are in order to protect them, and even worse, never know when friends become enemies.
Army of Shadows didn't get a U.S. theatrical release until 2006 in part because French critics at the time panned it due to its positive portrayal of General Charles DeGaulle, who was an unpopular President at the time because of his aggressive handling of the May 1968 protests. In the '90s, the film was reconsidered by Cahiers du cinema and earned a restoration. Without external politcal forces affecting opinion, the film is better appreciated. Melville's steady, purposeful direction leads the talented actors who deliver authentic portrayals and his script is refreshingly unpredictable.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The cinematography is desaturated and uses a lot of earth tones, which come through in strong hues. Blacks are solid. The better lit a scene is, the better the contrast. When shadows diminish delination, it seems intentional in the source. Details are evident though soft focus occurs, also due to the source. Criterion did their usual digital sprucing up.
The audio is available as LPCM Mono and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Dialogue sounds clear to this non-French speaker and is balanced well with the music and effects. Criterion has done spruced up the audio as well and exhibits no sign of wear or age.
Impressive as they are, the Special Edition Features are the same ones from the Criterion DVD release of the film. Film historian Ginette Vincendeau gives an insightful commentary with background about Melville, the film, and the initial reaction.
"Jean-Pierre Melville, Filmmaker" (1080i, 4 min) is a 1969 TV news segment from Chroniques de France where Melville is interviewed about directing and working with actors. A March 1969 episode of the French TV show L'invite du dimanche (1080i, 30 min) focused on Melville and Army of Shadows, which he was still editing at the time. The program shows behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Melville; Kessel; cast members Paul Crauchet, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and Simone Signoret; and Andre Dewavrin, who played himself in the film.
"Pierre Lhomme" (1080i, 14 min), the film's director of photography, who worked on its restoration, is interviewed in 2006. He discusses the thinking behind the way a number of scenes were shot and processed. A seven-minute restoration demonstration without audio is also included. Also recorded for Criterion in 2006, "Francoise Bonnot" (1080i, 11 min), the film's editor, whose mother also worked with Melville in the same capacity, provides anecdotes about the director's meticulousness.
"Melville et L'armee des ombres" (1080i, 28 min) is a StudioCanal documentary about Melville and contains interviews with film actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, editor Francoise Bonnot, writer/filmmaker Philippe Labro, composer Eric Demarsan, cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, and director Bertrand Tavernier. Some of the information is repeated from other extras.
"The Resistance" offers three selections. Le journal de la Resistance (HD, 34 min) was shot in August 1944 and shows "the final French insurrection in German-occupied Paris, the surrender of the Germans, and the mass celebration in the streets." Narrated by Noel Coward, it was intended to show France unification. "Simone Signoret and Lucie Aubrac" (1080i, 5 min) is taken from Liberation, liberation: Le cinema de l'ombre which aired in August 1984. Aubrac was a member of the Resistance and the inspiration for the character Mathidle portrayed by Signoret in the film, who was a student of Aubrac's when she studied philosophy. Airing in April 1973, Ouvrez les guillemets (1080i, 23 min) presents former Resistance members (Henri Frenay, Mr. and Mrs. Martinet, Claude Bourdet, Marcel Degliame) tell their stories. Melville can be seen in background
The original French trailer (1080i, 3 min) and the U.S. trailer from its 2006 debut in the States (1080i, 2 min) are available, and the booklet contains Amy Taubin's essay "Out of the Shadows," Professor Roberto O. Paxton's essay "Melville's French Resistance," and an interview with Melville excerpted from Rui Nogueira's Melville on Melville.
Army of Shadows is an impressive film that honors those whose story it tells. While not as exciting as the action-packed, spy thriller usually doled out by Hollywood, it is no less engaging and tension filled. Criterion does a good job upgrading the film to high defintion. I would recommend it, but with the limitations created by the source and the expectations of some Blu-ray aficiandoes, I am not sure it's worth the upgrade