France, October 1942. Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is an unassuming-looking gentleman who has been picked up by the Nazis and taken to a prison camp outside Paris, and appearances can be deceptive because his mild exterior conceals what his captors believe is an extremely dangerous freedom fighter. Gerbier is ordered into the barracks with the rest of the prisoners, but they have been arrested for what he sees as relatively minor transgressions in comparison to what he has done to the German Occupation. All he knows now is that he has to escape, but as he is so closely watched, when will an opportunity arise?
Jean-Pierre Melville knew of what he was directing here in Army in the Shadows, or L'armée des ombres if you spoke French, as he had been part of the Resistance himself, and although he was not basing his story here on any specific people's experiences, you can imagine that feeling of paranoia that he imbues the film with was very much part of daily life under the Nazis. Particularly if you were in any way involved with their overthrow, yet as we can see it was not just the most active opponents to them who ended up suffering, and indeed there are times in this where you search around for someone worth championing.
Sure, Gerbier and his cohorts are on the right side, but aside from their bravery they don't come across as the kind of heroes we see in many of the World War II movies that were released in this decade: this is no Alistair MacLean yarn. None of them can consider cracking a smile, and they treat saving their country with a businesslike manner that can leave you cold even as you are engaged by their story. Make no mistake, whatever your feelings for the protagonists, they get themselves into undoubtedly suspenseful situations as the Nazis seem to be ready to pounce on every corner, and any sign of weakness can lead to untimely death.
Oddly, the Nazis don't make many appearances on screen, as if on the periphery of the action rather than at the heart of it, but when they do hove into view they are usually carrying guns which they have no compunction about using or if they are higher up the ranks, will almost casually implement threats and torture to get their way. So we at least are well aware whose side we are on, but Melville here doesn't sugarcoat his perceptive qualities, as he makes it apparent when Gerbier uses a fellow prisoner as a decoy that the Resistance will be as ruthless as they can to win their fight, and that includes making sacrifices.
Even if those sacrifices are among their own allies. Gerbier does escape, then, and we can see why the Nazis were so keen to keep him locked up: not simply because they wanted information from him, but because of the damage he causes by being on the loose. Some find Army in the Shadows far too chilly to really warm to, if you will, but actually Melville's style is more elegant than dispassionate, if anything, there's a strong seam of guilt running through the film. He doesn't go quite as far as criticising those who had to kill off their fellow countrymen in the name of winning the war, but he's not willing to allow such drastic action to be swept under the carpet either. If you find this unpalatable, then you can at least appreciate the scenes of tension, from Gerbier receiving a shave after he flees to his flight over France from England from which he has to make a parachute jump in the dark. Music by Éric Demarsan.
[This film and five others directed by Melville are available on a Blu-ray box set The Jean-Pierre Melville Collection, with in-depth featurettes as supplements on each disc.]