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Review: 'Shadows' is a stiletto-sharp look at French Resistance

Published October 20, 2006 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Army of Shadows

* WHERE: Broadway Centre Cinemas.

* WHEN: Opens today.

* RATING: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for violence.

* RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes; in French with subtitles.

* BOTTOM LINE: The dirty work of the French Resistance is depicted in this restored classic.

The French director Jean-Pierre Melville was known primarily for crime pictures, notably the heist classic "Bob le Flambeur" (1955) and the gangster story "Le Samourai" (1967), which is best-known now because the lead character's black suit and tie were ripped off by Quentin Tarantino in "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction."

But before his death in 1973, Melville left one more great film, the 1969 World War II thriller "Army of Shadows." The film, brought to life by a new digital restoration, is a dark and intense examination of the French Resistance movement.

As the movie begins in 1942, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is being transported to a German POW camp. Philippe doesn't look like Paul Henreid in "Casablanca," the classic movie image of a Resistance fighter. With his glasses, sallow face and paunchy demeanor, Philippe looks more like an accountant. But behind those glasses, his eyes are constantly watching for a way out, a way to strike back against the Germans.

Philippe sees an opportunity for escape and takes it, knowing that another man likely will be killed in the process. But that's the cruel reality of the Resistance, knowing that sacrificing one life may save others - and that some people remain alive only until their usefulness is exhausted or until they become a liability. It's telling that the film is bookended by two scenes of Philippe and his crew having to kill someone perceived as a traitor to the cause.

Melville depicts the Resistance (in which he himself served during World War II) as a sort of Mafia, not unlike in his gangster films: close-knit, suspicious of outsiders and ready to mete out harsh penalties to anyone perceived to be disloyal. Any chance for intimacy or friendship - as when a tough-as-nails Resistance organizer, Mathilde (played by the legendary Simone Signoret), reaches out to a wounded Philippe - is secondary to the mission at hand.

Melville stages riveting set pieces, tense little nuggets of men striking in the dark and dealing out death. "Army of Shadows" is as unglamorous and gritty as war gets, even on the deceptively calm streets of Paris.