Release Date(s)1969 (January 11, 2011)
Studio(s)Films Corona/Fono Roma/Rialto Pictures/Studio Canal (Criterion - Spine #385)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Jean-Pierre Melville only lived to be 55 years old, but the films he directed include some impressive fare – Les enfants terribles, Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, Le samourai, Le cercle rouge, and… Army of Shadows (L’Armee des ombres). The latter is a 1969 film that received a mixed reception from French critics when originally released. It did not receive an American release until 2006 – an event that in contrast occasioned virtually unanimous acclaim. It’s easy to see why.
The film is essentially a tragedy, a muted tableau of events concerning the French Resistance during the mid-part of World War II. Based on a book by Joseph Kessel, it follows Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and the members of his resistance unit in a period where some are imprisoned and escape, others are imprisoned and tortured and where some are murdered by either the Gestapo or by their comrades as a result of their betrayal of others or the danger posed to the unit’s security. It’s all presently in a very low-key fashion, filmed in muted colours and very much reflects the stolid, intense quiet intelligence of Gerbier, so admirably conveyed by Lino Ventura.
Beyond the excellence of Ventura’s work, the film benefits from a uniformly excellent cast that includes Simone Signoret, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Crauchet, Claude Mann, and Christian Barbier. Some films about underground activities never manage to capture the sense of fear, tension, and continuous danger under which such actions are carried out, but that is never the case with Army of Shadows. It’s clear throughout that one chance encounter, one poor choice of location for a meal or meeting, one slight misstep in speech can mean capture and an incarceration that will live up to one’s worst nightmares. There are numerous scenes that stick in one’s memory, but it is the killing of a young man who worked with the unit, but betrayed them to the Germans, that really lingers. It’s not the actual event, rather the low-key discussion about how to do it (spoken matter-of-factly right in front of the man) that conveys the real horror of the sequence and by extension reflects the desperation that drives the unit’s actions throughout the film. The film is almost 2½ hours long, but it’s been edited with an eye to presenting just enough detail to keep one riveted to the screen throughout.
Criterion released the film on DVD in 2007 and has now brought it to Blu-ray in an impressive 1.85:1 transfer supervised by director of photography Pierre Lhomme and created from the original 35mm camera negative, restored by Studio Canal. Colours are muted throughout in recognition of the look Melville wanted and image sharpness is very good with only a couple of isolated exceptions. Night-time scenes are noticeably improved over the previous DVD in terms of colour fidelity and shadow detail. The image is very clean, reflecting the manual removal of multiple instances of scratches, dirt, debris, and other visual imperfections. The French DTS-HD 2.0 audio is clear and the very limited use of theme music is well conveyed. A French LPCM 1.0 track and English subtitles are provided.
The supplement package emphasizes Criterion’s typically thorough attention to detail. It’s the same package that appeared with the 2007 DVD with several of the items now presented in high definition. The highlights are an audio commentary with film historian Ginette Vincendeau, a 27-minute documentary about Melville and the film, an interview with Pierre Lhomme, and three featurettes related to the actual Resistance movement. Very highly recommended.
- Barrie Maxwell