All to often the popular conception of resistance movements can be rose-tinted. We imagine elaborate hide-outs printing propaganda, daring midnight assassinations, cycles through tranquil French countryside with a radio transmitter in the basket, etc. In L'armee des Ombres Melville presents a portrait of the resistance cell as mafia. It is an analogy that initially doesn't make sense but becomes increasingly clear as you progress through this long, immaculately paced and stylish thriller.
Melville is best known for his gangster films - beautiful, fatalistic experiments in crime ennui, shot through with raincoats, trilbies, muscle cars and a love for classic film noir. It is not surprising then that L'armee des ombres can be seen as one with his other films in its preoccupation with honour and its tense set pieces of thoroughly planned and quickly enacted action. The decision to mold the resistance members in the shape of gangsters may have something to do with Melville's own personal experience of the resistance movement - did he see actions and events that didn't fit in with the glamour? Or was he merely viewing his surrounding through the lens of a American film aficionado, unable to separate the acts of desperation and resistance from those portrayed on screen.
The film follows the fates of a resistance cell based in Vichy France through 1942-1943. The cell is led by Lino Ventura's Phillipe, a calm unassuming looking man capable of great feats of coldness and exactitude. The film begins with Phillipe in a prison camp, being booked in by a collaborator and spending time with the inmates, each of whom have been imprisoned for minor acts of defiance. Phillipe remains distant throughout. It is here that we first see the ambiguity of his character. Is he distant because he doesn't want to make himself a target - is he biding his time? Or does he feel he is more important than these small-fry prisoners? Is he just interested in 'the business' of the resistance. There is a lot to suggest the latter.
As in all of Melville's films Phillipe lives by a code, of which everything else (friendship, compassion) comes secondary. It is due to strict compliance to this code that we see Phillipe perform some of his most despicable acts. A young member of the resistance is strangled to death in painstaking close up with a shocking fatalism. Objections are raised but quickly waved away as adherence to the code of honour that binds the cell together takes precedence. Phillipe seems pained by the death and promises the young man that it will be a quick death, but he still holds his legs down as the boy's last breaths are expelled. Melville shoots such scenes with a formalistic calm, each shot framed like a Vermeer painting.
The code of honour amongst the resistance members seems to consume them all. Apart from one scene where Phillipe kills a German guard in order to escape certain execution, we never witness the assassination of a German military figure or Vichy collaborator. Indeed collaborators in general are conspicuously absent from most of the film: strange considering the Vichy France setting. Most of the action concerns the rescue of imprisoned members, or the assassination of traitors: it is a hermetic worldview and one that seems self-destructive. The final scene is one of the most pessimistic in cinema. The camera focuses on each member of the cell, steely eyed and determined, repressing all emotions after a distasteful but necessary act of violence as title cards explain the bloody fate that awaits them.
Upon its original release the film was derided for its Gaullist perspective, and whilst that reaction may have been mostly due to the politics of 1969 France the film still leaves you questioning the 'heroics' of the resistance. Viewed now the film can be seen as a superb, ambiguous examination of heroics and what it takes to make a stand of defiance.