Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 25, 2006

Army of Shadows

Filed under: Film,repression — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows” opens at New York’s Film Forum and in Los Angeles on April 28. This powerful tale about the French Gaullist resistance was first released in September 1969 to mixed critical and commercial reactions. Although the French public and the critical establishment might not have been favorably disposed to Melville’s point of view that year, the film transcends time and place and will enjoy the status of a classic alongside “Le Cercle Rouge” and “Bob Le Flambeur” –two other recently re-released Melville films– as well as help to cement his reputation as one of France’s greatest directors.

“Army of Shadows” is the third and final installment in a trilogy about France during wartime. All of these films draw upon Melville’s own experience as a combatant in the DeGaulle-led “Free French” movement. Melville, who was born a Jew (his family name was Grumbach; he adopted Melville in honor of the American novelist), downplayed his role, stating that “being in the Resistance if you’re a Jew is infinitely less heroic than if you’re not.”

By coincidence, “Army of Shadows” is based on the novel of the same name written by Joseph Kessel, another French Jew and a member of the Resistance. Kessel, who also wrote the novel “Belle de Jour” that the Bunuel film was based on, wrote “Army of Shadows” in 1943. When Melville came across it in London that year, he resolved to make a film about it someday. It took him 26 years to realize his dreams.

“Army of Shadows” revolves around the activities of an underground cell led by Philippe Gerbier, a middle-aged electrical engineer who remains unsmiling and impassive throughout the film. He is played by Lino Ventura, who enjoyed a career as a professional wrestler before becoming an actor frequently cast in gangster roles.

Indeed, one of the criticisms of Melville’s film at the time was that it depicted the Resistance figures as criminal-like. In one scene, Gerbier and his comrades take a young turncoat to a hideout where they intend to shoot him. When they discover that the next house has become occupied, they decide that that the sound of gunfire might draw the cops and are forced to improvise. After Gerbier proposes different possibilities (a knife, a club) in neutral tones as if he were discussing how to remove a stain from silverware, they finally settle on strangulation. All the while, their fresh-faced soon-to-be victim stands cowering against the wall.

Although this suggests the bloody final scene in “Reservoir Dogs,” (Tarantino and John Woo count Melville as one of their greatest influences), it really might resonate more with non-film traditions, specifically the novels of Andre Malraux, another Gaullist. “Man’s Fate” used the Communist uprising in Shanghai as a backdrop but Malraux was far more interested in dramatizing the existential and psychological ordeals of his alienated revolutionary heroes than in the broader political and social issues.

In “Melville on Melville,” the director explains why, unlike the book, two brothers in the Resistance are unaware of each other’s participation. He replies:

I wanted to avoid melodrama. You don’t see it? Perhaps you’re right. But go and see Army of Shadows at your local cinema. The moment the big boss comes down the ladder into the submarine and they realize he’s Jean-François’s brother, the audience can’t help going “Aaaahhh!” The two brothers’ failure to meet is made all the more remarkable by the fact that Fate is shuffling the cards for all time: shot under a false name by the Gestapo, Jean-François will die without ever knowing that Saint-Luc is the head of the Resistance, and Saint-Luc will never discover what happened to his brother. The circumstances make the disappearance of Jean-François all the more tragic.

Although “Army of Shadows” is virtually free of politics in the conventional sense, it is very much a tribute to the Resistance movement. If the characters are forced to resort to ruthless tactics, we understand that this is forced on them by a ruthless occupation. Films like “Battle of Algiers” and “Army of Shadows” will remain topical as long as occupation armies are sent to impose Vichy-like regimes on a proud people.

Army of Shadows website: http://www.rialtopictures.com/shadows.html


  1. Louis,

    I have read your writings and posts for the past 5 or so years. I am wondering what are your opinions on the Revolutionary COmmunist Party and Bob Avakian?


    Comment by Doug Smiley — April 27, 2006 @ 5:28 pm

  2. I guess that’s the problem with blogs. They don’t lend themselves to threads that are in effect initiated under an unrelated topic such as this. Put briefly, I don’t think that the “Marxist-Leninist” model is useful today and, moreover, it is really a schematic understanding of what Lenin was trying to do. That being said, I have heard from reliable sources that Avakian’s memoir is quite good and plan to read it one of these days.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 27, 2006 @ 6:00 pm

  3. I’m trying to find the junction between Alan Furst and “Army of Shadows”. Have you ever come across Furst acknowledging the film, Melville or Kessel? Do you know of others who see a connection?


    Comment by Mitch — May 20, 2006 @ 3:29 pm

  4. Hi, Mitch. I corresponded with Furst on a similar tie-in, but not with “Army of Shadows”. Like Furst’s novel “Red Gold”, Bernard Tavernier’s 2002 “Safe Conduct” (Laissez-passer) hero is a film director who works with the French Resistance. This was his response:

    Dear Louis, Thanks for writing and thanks for the kind words. The character of Jean Casson was (faintly) suggested by Marcel Carne, and Citrine (faintly) by Arletty. That’s true in all the books–Ilya Ehrenburg as Andre Szara in Dark Star–but I use only a very general idea, and after that they’re just characters in novels. All best, Alan

    Comment by Louis Proyect — May 20, 2006 @ 4:02 pm

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