Immersed in the titular shadows in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 thriller, the characters can not exist without them. Cops and criminals share violent lives but also a common code of honor, even if their faith in it and each other typically proves their downfall. In Army of Shadows, shadows conceal men whose only moral principle and greatest crime is the desire for freedom.
Just now released for the first time in the U.S., Army of Shadows tells the story of a cadre of Gaullist rebels in their struggle against the Nazi occupation of France. Both Melville and Joseph Kessel, on whose novel the movie is based, were involved with the French Resistance and the film draws heavily from their wartime experiences. The small number of Resistance fighters and their lack of popular support doom them to ignominious deaths at the hands of the Vichy regime and the Nazis. The film’s sense of tragic inevitability emerges in its adherence to the same structure as Melville’s other movies—for instance, Bob le flambeur (1955) or Le cercle rouge (1970)—where we know from the beginning that the criminals cannot hope to escape the law. That this law is the result of foreign invasion makes no difference.
Most importantly, Shadows suggests that darkness is not an indication of definitive immorality. Rather, it can be the inspiration for unlikely allegiances. In one scene, a young communist asks Gerbier (Lino Ventura) if he is also a communist. “No, but I do have comrades,” he says. Elsewhere Gerbier finds help from the Baron de Ferte Talloire (Jean-Marie Robain), a former enemy of the republic, even as both know their trust in each other is at once necessary and potentially fatal.
But the strongest partnership, and the source of the film’s pathos, is shared by seven Gaullists. Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a wife and mother leading a double life as an organizer for the Resistance, proves more capable a leader than any of the men. Willing to take risks, she thinks beyond the structures the others glumly accept. She alone shows hope in the face of hopelessness. Yet she has a weakness: her daughter. When Mathilde is captured, threatened (her daughter will be sent to a Polish brothel if Mathilde doesn’t talk), then mysteriously released, the men can no longer be sure of her motives. Only structural realities remain, and they act accordingly.
The certainty of tragedy would be merely boring if it weren’t for Melville’s singular gifts as a director. In Shadows, each frame suggests a struggle against the inevitability of the final shot, detailed, graceful, and moving.
Why has a film of this caliber and from a director of such renown taken 30 years to reach the U.S.? One answer might be its initial reception in Europe. It was released shortly after the May 1968 riots and the disgraces of Charles de Gaulle’s postwar regime, and many French critics interpreted Shadows as an apology for the president’s right-wing views. Historical investigation at the time revealed that politicians had used “the Resistance” as a means to political power, even if their actual roles were negligible.
Other writers claimed that Melville disrespectfully portrayed the Resistance fighters as gangsters. Viewed today, it’s clear that Army of Shadows is exploring narrative structures along with political intrigues. The movie considers the cruelties are demanded by impossible situations, as well as the emotional and moral costs of submitting to such demands.