The Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres)
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Based on the novel by Joseph Kessel
Available to Stream on HuluPlus
Spoiler alert: This is the only French film on the list. So if you’re looking for Goddard, Truffaut, or Bresson, sorry ’bout it. For me, Jean-Pierre Melville is the true master of post-war French cinema. Maybe he wasn’t a revolutionary. Maybe he didn’t shake the world of film like his contemporaries. But his films have an attitude and sense of involvement that make them hard to forget.
Whenever I watch a Melville film, I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman (spoiler alert again: you’ll see him later in this list). Both of these artists had a tremendous command of atmosphere. The surfaces of their films often appear peaceful and reserved, but just beneath the calm exterior there is always some hidden threat, something waiting to crawl its way out into the open.
Army of Shadows is Melville’s best film. Why? Well, because it’s my list and I say it is. But here’s why I believe it is. Movies are primarily about feelings. Not entertainment, not ideological messages, and certainly not technological feats. When we remember the movies we love, it’s because of the way they made us feel. Film is very much like poetry in that way. The sensations, not the particulars are what stick with us.
And this film is one helluva poem. The plot follows a group of resistance fighters in post-war France and the men who are trying to capture them. There are heroes, traitors, and secrets but don’t expect a glamorized spectacle of espionage. Melville is too good for that. What we get instead is the brutality of silence and underlying fear. Little is spoken, little is known for sure. There is a rhythm to the violence, and more importantly the suspenseful moments leading up to it. Like a very good poem Army of Shadows is light on words and heavy in tone. It is also a work of staggering visual beauty. Watching it reminded me of viewing a painting, not of a glorious sunrise or a flowery meadow, but of a cold, damp twilight and a haunting quietness that you can almost touch.