Saturday, September 29, 2012

Army of Shadows / Le samouraï -
Jean-Pierre Melville (1969/1967)

Jean-Pierre Melville is one cool dude. He renamed himself after the author of Moby-Dick. He was such an influence on the Nouvelle Vague that Godard cast him in Breathless (1960, S&S #13). And the latter of these two practically embodies the term 'cool.'

Both films are Criterion releases, both are Ebert Great Movies, and both do appear on the long-form 2012 Sight & Sound poll.

Army of Shadows (L'armée des ombres)
dir. Jean-Pierre Melville. 1969, France.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #202 / Directors' #322
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD/Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection
Watch via Amazon Instant

Army of Shadows trailer (2007)

Felix: I've set up a table and some chairs.
Gerbier: We're not here for a trial. We're here for this.

Not being a WWII historian, the first thing I noticed was how much detailed information I needed to fill in during Army of Shadows. The Arc de Triomphe? 1836. The Vichy regime? 1940-44. The Phony War? Declared but unfought. Kabyles? Algerian Berbers. Ausweiss? Occupation work permit.

Talking about the movie proves a little difficult for me. It’s about people working in the French Resistance against the Nazis - the operative word being "work." Despite a couple of semi-dramatic escapes, the resistance here mostly amounts to logistics... just doing what needs to be done, taking care of business, of course with extremely high stakes and severe risks. Traitors have to be eliminated, agents need to be smuggled, there's a submarine rendezvous, Gestapo headquarters must be infiltrated. But then everything is so understated, almost business-as-usual... very much more human, with only the most stoic of heroism - but few of the traditional "heroics." When on a mission, there's no dark humor or one-liners, and even torture at the hands of the Nazis happens offscreen. It's like Melville had never seen a war movie! But he did see war, actually fighting in the French Resistance.

Our hero Gerbier is a nebbishy civil engineer, a leader in the Resistance and cool in the face of evil. Perhaps not cut out for dominoes, but he'll plunge a knife deep in the Nazi occupation's throat. Or at least insure that the necessary forged documents make it to the appropriate clandestine agents. You really get to know the operatives in his cell: trusted Felix, hypercompetent Mathilde, codename: Le Masque, physical enforcer Le Bison, new recruit Jean-François - and even Jean's detached older brother, mathematician Luc Jardin. So I became attached to their fates, which are not all glorious in victory. The sub takes Gerbier to London for a ceremony. The snooty Englishers won't offer much help, but he gets to see Gone with the Wind (1939, S&S #235), Big Ben, an American jazz party, the Blitz (city on fire just like in the movies)... and I recognized Charles de Gaulle, even from behind! After parachuting back into occupied France, there are cyanide capsules, double-blind secret missions, a low-tech airstrip, a sign reading "EINGANG VERBOTEN," moonlight on safe house, and always what needs to be done. But I won't reveal any secrets.

Le samouraï
dir. Jean-Pierre Melville. 1967, France.
Sight & Sound 2012: Critics' #235 / Directors' #91
Roger Ebert's Great Movies ... Criterion essay
DVD from the Criterion Collection
No streaming...

Le samouraï trailer (1967)

Police Superintendent: General alert. Routine roundup. Identity checks all night. The killer is described as tall, young, wearing a raincoat and a hat.

This was a new-school (at the time) film about old-school crime: murder for hire. Revenge and honor too. The beginning of the movie firmly establishes that it is not a world of idle chit-chat. Speaking too much, or under the wrong circumstances, does not pay. The police investigators, on the other hand, are nothing but talk: smarmy cajoling, underhanded pressure, line-up trickery... But all their efforts are worth less than the caged bird's whistle.

I definitely don't want to get into the plot, so here's some other stuff. The film is extra stylish, with a crystal-clear mood. The minimalist palette is mostly grays, blue-grays, gray-blues, blacks, with some pale tan for a splash of color. The killer's room is dingy, his bird is dingy, the city is dingy. (I can't remember any scenes where you can tell it's Paris.) But his overcoat and hat are crisp, as are the cars he boosts. There's a famous or influential chase through the Metro, and that's the right place for it. Either Jef Costello or Alain Delon was really not a very good driver. At the beginning, I thought "he wants to live outside the cage." And I thought it again at the end of the movie.

Superb film! Do yourself a favor...

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