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Army in the Shadows

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

FRANCE-ITALY| 1969. SUBTITLED. COLOUR. 145 MIN.


Unavailable at the time of the IFI’s Jean-Pierre Melville retrospective in 2003, the director’s superb 1969 French Resistance drama is now receiving a welcome re-release in a new 35mm print.

Made between ‘Le Samourai’ and ‘Le Cercle rouge’, at the peak of Melville’s powers (though he’d been planning a film of Joseph Kessel’s book for 25 years), ‘Army in the Shadows’ is one of the great director’s very finest achievements. It helps, of course, that he had fought for the French Resistance himself, and was able to draw on personal memories of people, places, events and, most importantly, the strategies and methods of the Underground; for, as he chronicles a four-month period in the lives of a group of freedom fighters led by Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), depicting their furtive battles against the occupying Nazis (first shown, famously, marching on the Champs-Elysees), collaborators and, most dangerously, traitors in their own camp, the film is imbued not only with the authenticity of history but with the truth of first-hand remembrance. This, in turn, means that the movie in many ways feels very like Melville’s crime thrillers, both in his masterly ability to create suspense—note the remarkable build-up to Gerbier’s attempted break-out from Gestapo HQ—and in his cool, clear-eyed focus on questions of honour and courage, loyalty and betrayal. The world depicted is one where trust, though in short supply, is most important; it’s impossible to know not only how far others may be depended on, but even how far you yourself might act under torture and threat of death.—Geoff Andrew.

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