Eric Breitbart on Jean-Pierre Melville from NER 28.1 (2007):
With the release of L’armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969) in a beautifully restored print, and the availability of many of his earlier films on DVD, audiences can appreciate the full range of Jean-Pierre Melville’s artistry.
Adapted from Joseph Kessel’s novel of the same name, Army of Shadows recounts the tragic story of five members of a Resistance network in occupied France. In the war’s early years, the French underground was a small force—Melville estimated their number at no more than six hundred—and their activities as depicted in the film consist primarily of eluding the Gestapo while saving British and Canadian pilots who have been shot down over France, and building the Resistance network by bringing in supplies from England. Though the film’s characters are fully realized individuals living in a particular historical period, Army of Shadows gradually evolves into a universal epic drama of loyalty, courage, and fate. The conventions of World War II prisoner films like The Great Escape or Bridge on the River Kwai, and the accepted mythology of the Resistance portrayed in La bataille du rail (Battle of the Rails) and Le père tranquille (The Quiet Father) are both ignored. Trains are not blown up and there are no dramatic confrontations or cliff-hanging sequences. German soldiers and the Gestapo are omnipresent in Army of Shadows but never as individual incarnations of Evil; there are no jack-booted SS officers for us to hate. And while we do see the bloody, mangled faces of men who have been tortured, the torture itself is never shown; and what is more unusual and disturbing, the acts of violence are those of the Resistance killing their own.
Though shot in color by the renowned cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, the film’s restrained palette and somber mood make it feel much more like black-and-white. The film’s first shot, a tour-de-force recreation of the famous World War II newsreel of German troops marching along the Champs-Elysées, comes as a shock. It looks like the newsreel until the soldiers come marching toward the camera and you realize that the scene is in color, not black and white, and that it’s shot from a position you’ve never seen before. When bright colors are used, as in a London nightclub sequence during the Blitz, the effect is almost expressionistic.