``Bad memories, I welcome you anyway: You are my long-lost youth."
The epigraph that opens ``Army of Shadows" presumably comes from the movie's source, Joseph Kessel's 1943 French Resistance memoir ``Les Armée des Ombres." Make no mistake, though -- this is director Jean-Pierre Melville speaking from his wounded heart.
The appearance of a Melville film in these parts is always an event. The filmmaker (1917-1973) presaged the French New Wave with gangster movies like ``Bob Le Flambeur" (1955) that are breathtaking displays of existential cool; such later works as ``Le Samourai" (1967) and ``Le Cercle Rouge" (1970) are just about perfect in their commingling of sin and Zen.
``Army of Shadows" was made in 1969, between those two cinematic peaks, but it's a different film entirely: a long, realistic, unbearably sad Resistance drama in which the stakes are as high as they are unspoken. If heroes in other Melville movies struggle against fate, they fight a known enemy here. The characters are plainspoken and average-looking, given to the noble gesture because to do otherwise would be to just give in. Their heroism requires acts of savagery, though, and that's the harder fact to confront.
One of the early scenes in ``Army of Shadows" involves the murder of a traitor to the cause -- a young man whose family was in all likelihood threatened by the Nazis -- and as the Resistance cell members circle him in a quiet Marseilles apartment, they realize that none of them has murdered before. It's an awful sequence, and it needs to be, because this is what separates these men from the Germans: For them, killing another person is an unimaginably difficult act.
The leader of the Marseilles group is Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a middle-age man who was a civil engineer before the Occupation and who looks it. As soon as we meet him, in a German POW camp where the commandant has no idea who he has captured, we see that Gerbier has the practiced eye of his profession, looking everywhere for weaknesses and leverage. Does he knowingly sacrifice another man to the Nazis so he can make his escape? It's unclear even to Gerbier, and, anyway, contingency is everything.
Back on the streets, he reconnects with other members of his organization: Felix (Paul Crauchet), who loathes the bowler hat he wears to blend in with the crowd; sensitive muscleman Le Bison (Christian Barbier); new recruits Jean (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and Le Masque (Claude Mann), the former capable and quiet, the latter enthusiastic and naive.
They're eventually joined by Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a patisserie owner who becomes as important as Gerbier to the operation's smooth running. Their missions are small but crucial -- a delivery of radio parts under the noses of Nazis and Vichy officials, rowing a Resistance leader (Paul Meurisse) to a waiting submarine -- and the sense is that they're willing pieces of an invisible machine that doesn't always behave logically or fairly.
``Army of Shadows" is as dark as its title implies, shot by Pierre Lhomme and Walter Wottitz in a drained, sickly blue-gray. Like other Melville films, it avoids melodrama and sticks to the facts; the dialogue is terse and functional. This is a hushed, undecorated cinema, because decoration stands out and standing out gets you killed.
Chances are you'll be killed anyway. Fatalism hangs over these characters, some of whom wonder what they'll do when the moment of death comes. One even finds out -- he thinks, randomly, of a pretty girl he saw at a party once -- and then, just as randomly, is saved, probably to die another day.
As coolly filmed as ``Army" is, it's a personal work. Melville, who fought with the Resistance before joining the Free French Forces in England, uses another man's novel in the same way Roman Polanski used another man's life in ``The Pianist," and for the same reasons: to provide a framework for memories that would be too painful on their own. The results bear witness to a time when sacrifice was bleached of everything but itself.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.