Movie Night With Urbaniak: Army of Shadows

I’m in the middle of writing a script, so my movie-renting rate has plummeted in the past few months. Several times I’ve thought about canceling my membership at Cinefile and the other day I walked into the store intending to do so (after returning my copy of Heaven’s Gate, which I’d had for a month). But they had a copy of Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 French Resistance thriller Army of Shadows available, so I thought “Well, let’s hold off on canceling the membership for the moment.”

(What you have to understand about Cinefile is that, as the only decent video store on the west side, all the good stuff is always out. Their copy of Vanishing Point was checked out last Easter and has never returned.)

I’ve seen a couple of Melville’s movies before, Bob le Flambeur and Le Cercle Rouge, both of which I watched in my research on heist movies. There is something of Melville in Tarantino I find, with his emphasis on emotional intensity and subverting genre expectations, and his de-emphasis on plot mechanics. Although Melville’s characters don’t sit around yakking about pop-culture phenomena of the 70s.

So Urbaniak comes over, knowing less about Army of Shadows than I do, and knowing probably about as much as I do about the French Resistance, and having never seen a Melville picture before. And twenty minutes into the picture, the protagonist (at least I think he’s the protagonist) and his buddies (at least I think they’re his buddies) are in the middle of trying to figure out how to kill a betrayer and I pause the DVD to clarify some plot point or other (Melville introduces us to no one and expects us to catchup with whatever names and situations he throws at us) and Urbaniak comes out and says “In some weird way, this movie reminds me of Reservoir Dogs.”

Which is entirely apt. We’ve got a bunch of guys in a situation. The director just drops us right in, tells us nothing about what’s going on, tells us nothing about who is who, where they are going, what are the stakes, who’s against who, just drops us into the situation and lets the emotional stakes of the scene carry the drama. And the American screenwriter in the audience is racking his brain trying to figure out who is who and where are they going and who is trying to kill who and who can the protagonist trust, and it takes him a little while before he figures out that he’s working against the intent of the filmmaker. The whole point of Army of Shadows is, it turns out, putting the viewer into the same situation as the protagonist (who is a high-level Resistance member). The protagonist doesn’t know who he can trust, so neither does the viewer. The protagonist doesn’t know what’s going to be waiting for him in the next room and neither does the viewer. The protagonist doesn’t know if he can trust the guy sitting next to him, the barber shaving his neck, the man driving the car, and neither does the viewer. The result is electrifying cinema, a movie that dares you to breathe as its characters move through a shadowy twilit world of betrayals and heroism, toward an ill-defined goal and with no reward in sight.

So it turns out, not only do you not have to know much about the French Resistance to watch Army of Shadows, it’s actually a benefit. The movie has very little plot, it’s more of a series of long set pieces describing a chain of physical experiences. This is what it’s like to make friends in a concentration camp, this is what it’s like to have to kill an informer for the first time, this is what it’s like to escape from a Gestapo interrogation, this is what it’s like to bust a guy out of prison, this is what it’s like to be shoved out of a British airplane, with no preparation, in the middle of the night, over what landscape who knows. Every scene, every gesture, every noise on the soundtrack is filled with possibilities. Is there going to be a bomb in this box, or just a shirt? Is the antique dealer going to turn out to be a spy? Is it enough to get through the Gestapo at the train station, or will there be Vichy gendarmes at the Metro station as well?

Melville creates and sustains an absurd level of suspense and intrigue for a movie lasting over 2 hours, which is astonishing when you consider that the movie has very little plot and absolutely no overselling. The shooting style is as declarative and understated as possible; as Urbaniak kept noting, it’s just: “This is what it was like.” The movie doesn’t grab you by the lapels, it doesn’t show off its brilliant technique, it doesn’t dazzle you with clever writing or breathtaking visuals — it doesn’t need to. The situations are so intensely dramatic all by themselves, any more emphasis would be gilding the lily.

Another sterling transfer of a wonderful new print by the ever-reliable folks at Criterion. And for a wonderful essay on the history and background of the movie, look no further.

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