Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville (1969)

Melville’s chilly formalism has turned me off in the past, but it works quite brilliantly in this account of a French resistance cell’s wartime activities. There are scenes of great drama, action, daring, cunning, etc., but they’re all conveyed with stony austerity, so the effect isn’t one of excitement but of grim duty and honor. I should have thought of this before, but Melville’s style recalls not so much that of the American noir directors with whom he’s said to have been obsessed, but rather the Japanese pictorialists like Ozu or Mizoguchi, who like Melville are always conscious of the relationships between every figure in the frame.

A particularly tragic, and I imagine sadly accurate aspect of the story is how focused the resistance fighters must need be on the potential for one of their own to betray them. An early scene where a miserable, terrified turncoat must be executed speaks elegantly to the deadly and ironic pathos of the resistance fighter who finds himself having to harm one of his own in order to strike at his enemy.

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