Maybe it was because he refused to cozy up to the French New Wave. Or maybe it was because he could be a bit of a bastard. Whatever the case, Jean-Pierre Melville never enjoyed the same swooning reverence from art-house types in America as his countrymen Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. That may be about to change. Made in the period between his fatalistic, trench-and-fedora noirs Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, Army of Shadows is undeniably Melville’s masterpiece — a devastating, nail-biting French Resistance thriller that, oddly, has never been available on this side of the Atlantic. So consider this two-disc Criterion set the Dead Sea Scrolls of ’60s French cinema.
Partly based on Melville’s own experiences during WWII, Shadows traces the cloak-and-dagger exploits of a small band of underground spies as they play cat and mouse with the jackbooted Gestapo, grappling with questions of loyalty and cowardice. Spanning four months in the midst of the Nazi occupation, the film kicks off with a haunting re-creation of the Nazis parading down the Champs-Élysées, goose-stepping in front of the Arc de Triomphe. It then dives headfirst into the lives of its cast of doomed, anonymous heroes. Lino Ventura oozes cerebral cool as the cell’s world-weary leader, Jean-Pierre Cassel is heartbreaking as the young recruit who can’t muster the courage to risk his life when it matters most, and Simone Signoret, a brassy chain-smoking Shelley Winters lookalike, proves that existential woe isn’t limited to les hommes.
Besides a gorgeous print, the feast of extras includes documentaries on both the Resistance and Melville, as well as spicy commentaries from his crew, who, 37 years on, still seem afraid of their tyrannical leader…even though he’s been dead for ages. A