ARMY OF SHADOWS directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville from the novel by Joseph Kessel, with Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret and Jean-Pierre Cassel. 145 minutes. Subtitled. Runs Friday to Wednesday (April 13-18) at Cinematheque Ontario (317 Dundas West). Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
American director Walter Hill knows character. In an interview with Film Comment in the 70s, he said, "In my movies, 'character' is how many times you blink when someone puts a gun in your face."
Hill was half-joking, but there's one director of whom that statement is absolutely true.
How many times you blink, how you shrug into that big overcoat, how you wear your hat - the world of Jean-Pierre Melville is inhabited by tough, laconic guys hanging around in bleak, barely furnished rooms, wondering who's going to betray them today.
Of all the French filmmakers besotted with American culture, Melville most successfully combines the ineluctable cool of the film noir hero with the existential poetic flourish of the French crime film.
Army Of Shadows, his hagiographic tribute to the courage of the French Resistance fighters during the second world war, synopsizes like a war film but looks and plays like a gangster movie. Stars Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse had acted in Melville's previous gangster film, Le Deuzième Souffle, and the iconography is almost identical: hard men in topcoats and fedoras in dimly lit rooms, waiting for treachery and killing those who have already betrayed them.
Army Of Shadows' greatness arises from its internal tensions. It's a war film that doesn't look like one, a movie about masculine heroism in which the heroes almost never do anything. We see them kill two of their own, escape successfully from the Nazis once and try to bust one of their own men out of prison in the film's most electrifying suspense scene. It's an "action" movie about stasis and frustration.
This 37-year-old movie got its New York premiere last year in this restored print and promptly won the New York Film Critics' Circle prize for best foreign film. Despite its age, it's certainly the best "new" movie I've seen this year. But without going into the factionalism and vote-trading that are trademarks of the NYFCC, it was a fascinatingly perverse choice.
I suspect the award was partly intended as a rebuke. At a time when so many directors shoot tons of film to hide the fact that they don't really know what movie they're making, Melville's stark, unsparing style and precise camera placement suggest that he knew exactly what he needed every time he stepped on a set. Army Of Shadows is 145 minutes long, and nothing is extraneous or padded. It's this long because it needs to be this long and no longer, and there's nothing you might cut to make it shorter. Every second of the film works toward the climax.
The only turnoff is that the audience is left feeling as trapped as the characters. Melville's figures are often aware of their own iconic status (I'm thinking particularly of Alain Delon's perfectionist murderer in Le Samouraí), but in Army Of Shadows their cool does them no good.
Character may indeed be how many times you blink when someone puts a gun in your face or what you say when you're chained to a chair in Gestapo headquarters, but the overwhelming odds facing the heroes here are such that their masculine code of honour, made visible in the rake of a hat or the effort required to wear one's coat, becomes the only thing sustaining the Melville hero, and in this world it simply isn't enough.
Though Melville was in the Resistance, the film is not autobiographical. It's an adaptation of Joseph Kessel's Resistance memoir, published during the war, when the outcome was very much in doubt. Melville personalizes it by transposing a story of wartime heroism into the key of gangster tragedy, and it's astonishing how easy the fit is.
This is a limited run, four screenings, at the Cinematheque. If you miss it - and you really shouldn't - Criterion has announced a DVD release in late May.