If it’s Jean-Pierre Melville’s eleventh feature, Le Samouraï, that regularly haunts Greatest Movies Ever Made lists, it’s his twelfth, Army In The Shadows, that’s his best. Some statement? Well, yes – especially given existential hitman thriller Le Samouraï remains as cool and enigmatic as ever. But look for yourselves, this tidily assembled disc at last showcasing Melville’s (seductively restored) masterpiece on DVD.
Loosely, some would say impudently, adapted from Joseph Kessler’s docu-novel, Army follows French Resistance leader Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and cohorts as they skulk and scheme, huddling in the shadows of lugubrious landscapes to escape the attentions of the Gestapo. The (in)action is punctuated by consummate set-pieces (the horrific execution of a snitch, a daring parachute jump, three electrifying escape attempts), but don’t expect heroics. Himself a soldier of the Resistance, Melville favours seclusion and inertia over commotion and endeavour, sobriety over triumphalism. It’s the way of his samurai pictures transposed to World War Two: sustained takes, muted palette, minimalist art direction, covert symbolism, pensive score and laconic, iconic performances from men in hats.
Deservedly buffeted by strong extras, the highlight is a detailed chat-track by esteemed critic Ginette Vincendeau, her passion for Melville’s “brilliant, profound and tragic film” preventing her from taking a breath for two-and-a-half hours. Archive documentary Le Journal De La Resistance also deserves mention, its affecting images of Parisians reclaiming their occupied city accompanied by Noel Coward’s quivering narration.