Strolling Toward Their Destiny

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Don't want to see Tom Cruise bouncing off the walls again in the latest Mission Improbable? Don't want to see the SS Poseidon go belly up again and watch all those tired character actors go glub-glub-glub? Can't say I blame you. With pictures like these, it's hard to say what your worst fear is when you set out for the multiplex: that you won't get in or that you will.

There is, however,an alternative this spring. Itís called Army of Shadows. It is about the French Resistance to the occupying Nazis during World War II and the story of this filmís making and release is almost as interesting as the true-to- life adventure it recounts. Itís based on a novel Joseph Kessel — more famous for writing the book on which Luis Bunuel based Belle de Jour — published in 1943, when he was himself a member of the resistance, and it was written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville (also a resistance fighter) in 1969, a quarter of a century after he first decided that he somehow had to make a movie of this story. It now appears in the United States for the first time in an impeccable print (the images of cinematographer Pierre Lhomme are as subtly hued as a 19th Century color engraving).

Youíre going to have to look for this movie in the fine print of the art-house listings, but it is well worth the effort — mostly for what the movie does not do. Chief among its reluctances is killing Germans. Exactly one of them, a hapless guard at the Paris Gestapo headquarters, is murdered by Philippe (the great Lino Ventura) as he makes his escape from his would-be torturers. For the rest of the picture he runs a little band of underground fighters who are mainly preoccupied with their own security. You never see them blowing up a train or ambushing a German patrol or, for that matter, doing anything remotely useful to the Allied cause. Instead they pursue traitors in their own midst and spend a lot of time trying to spring their own members who have been captured by the Germans before they are forced to reveal the secrets of their espionage network.

They include a couple of formerly well-known French actors (Simone Signoret and Jean-Pierre Cassel), but mostly they have creased, worn, knowing anonymous faces that, to this day, one sees going in and out of the corner tabacs all over France. Melville never comments on the absurd distance between the risks this group runs and the apparent paucity of the results they achieve. Melville has said that at the time his picture covers (1942-43) the underground had only 600 members (more joined later) so there wasnít much they could do but try to save their own skins. But he seems to feel that it was better that there was a resistance — something on which to build a heroic myth after the nationís abject surrender — than if there were not, and after seeing this film, one has to agree. Somebody had to do something, even if it was largely symbolic. And they did, at least, tie up a lot of German troops as they slipped through the shadows.

Take Venturi's Phillipe, for example. He was a civil engineer before the war, a practical and phlegmatic man who never raises his voice, even when heís ordering the death of a traitor to the cause. He began his public life as a wrestler and it has been observed that in his presence he is the logical successor to Jean Gabin, another great screen actor whom the camera never catches acting. He just triumphantly is, a large, taciturn, slightly ponderous man whose compassion is totally implicit, yet somehow palpable — even when heís overseeing the garroting of an informer. Forced by the Gestapo to play a deadly little game — a group of prisoners is given a running head start before the machine guns are fired, their reward being a delayed execution if theyíre not hit — he at first refuses to run. Whatís the point, he asks in voice over? Heís no more afraid of death than an animal in a abattoir and heís sure that its coming to him sooner rather than later.

But that deadly run is about as intense as the "action" in Army of Shadows gets. Melville is a deeply patient director. He lets his players stroll, chatting, to their destinies, his camera panning or tracking their very normal, very unsuspicious, movements, while we in the audience get the creeps. We know, quite early in this film, that when death or capture appears it will be sudden. A car door opens or its window rolls down and there it is — "the distinguished thing." The effect, finally, is a forced, but mutedly melodramatic perspective on the religious saw about how, in life, we are ever in the midst of death.

So it was with Melville, who was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach a generation before the French New Wave, which revered him, and took as his nom de cinema the name of the author of Moby Dick . It was intended as an homage to the things American that he admired — most particularly genre crime films. It is therefore an irony that his work is so little known in the United States, though Bob LeFlambeur, released here in the Ď80s, about robbing the take at a Deauville casino, is the greatest heist movie Iíve ever seen. It is more than an irony — it is a great sadness — that Melville died suddenly of a stroke when he was only 55 years old. Still, he left behind a small, coherent body of work, in which hard, seemingly dispassionate men do their dirty work slowly and quietly and hint at deeper, possibly softer thoughts only through a shadowed glance that we canít be entirely certain we caught. Army of Shadows in its wintry elegance is one of his most characteristic works. And one of his greatest.