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Army Of Shadows<br>(L' Armee des ombres)

Army Of Shadows
(L' Armee des ombres)

Rialto Pictures
Review by: Larry Thomas

Unless you live in one of the major metropolitan areas on either coast, it's very difficult to see theatrical presentations of the films of French director Jean-Pierre Melville. Although he only made fourteen films during his brief career between 1945 and 1972, the quality of these films has endeared him to both critics and serious film buffs.

In the US, Melville's films were originally presented in English-dubbed, heavily cut versions… or not at all. Thanks to Rialto Pictures, a small independent company in New York dedicated to the resurrection and restoration of classic foreign films, the reissue of the full-length Le Cercle Rouge in 2003 spurred new interested in Jean-Pierre Melville. This epic gangster drama, starring Alain Delon and Yves Montand, not only amazed the critics, but was obviously a major influence on many of today's American directors, such as Quentin Tarantino.

In 2006, Rialto Pictures mounted a full-scale restoration of Army Of Shadows, a 1969 film that many consider Melville's masterpiece, and a film that had never before been released in the United States. The director of photography supervised the restoration, and given the condition of the available materials, the print looks really good.

Army Of Shadows is about the inner workings of the French Resistance during the occupation in 1942. Unlike American films, it's not about overt heroism, or massive gunfights, or big action scenes. The film plays out with a quiet tension, in almost an episodic fashion, tying all the characters together in their passion for their country and what they are, or are not, willing to do for it. There's a particularly moving, and disturbing, scene about how three members of the group are supposed to execute a traitor. In another, several members of the group devise a plan to enter the Gestapo headquarters to rescue a captured comrade. Once inside they realize that the rescue is not going to be possible, and they have to exit the premises empty handed. It's a breathtaking and heartbreaking series of scenes.

The cast is full of superior French actors. The lead, as such, is played by Lino Ventura, who manages to betray emotions and feelings all the while displaying almost no emotion at all; a terrific example of "less is more." Paul Meurisse (from Les Diaboliques), Jean-Pierre Cassel, Claude Mann, Serge Reggianni, and the Grande Dame of French cinema, Simone Signoret, all turn in some of their very best work.

One of the marvelous things about Army Of Shadows is that it has the structure and feel of a war film, an espionage tale, a gangster saga, and a story of close friendships. It could have been any one of those, but instead it is all of them.

Critics in no fewer than twelve publications, including Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, named Army Of Shadows the best film of 2006. It's certainly the first major film event in Cincinnati for 2007.


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