Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows

Infobox Film
name = Army of Shadows

caption = 2006 theatrical release poster
director = Jean-Pierre Melville
producer = Jacques Dorfmann
writer = Jean-Pierre Melville
Joseph Kessel (novel)
narrator =
starring = Lino Ventura
Simone Signoret
Paul Meurisse
Jean-Pierre Cassel
music = Éric Demarsan
cinematography = Pierre Lhomme
Walter Wottitz
editing = Françoise Bonnot
distributor = Rialto Pictures (2006)
released = 1969 (France)
1978 (UK)
2006 (US)
runtime = 145 minutes
country = France
language = French
budget =
preceded_by =
followed_by =
website =
amg_id = 1:98021
imdb_id = 0064040

For the book "Army of Shadows" see "Army of Shadows, Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948"

"Army of Shadows" (French: "L'Armée des ombres") is a 1969 French film directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. It is a film adaptation of Joseph Kessel's 1943 book of the same name, which blends Kessel's own experiences as a member of the French Resistance with fictionalized versions of real Resistance members who fought against the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.

At the time of its initial release in France, "Army of Shadows" was not well received and was rarely seen. It was not released in the United States until 2006, 37 years later. [cite web|url= | Great Movies: Army of Shadows |accessdate=2008-05-05 |publisher=Chicago Sun-Times|last=Ebert|first=Roger|date=2006-05-21] Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, the French news magazine "L'Express" repeatedly called "Army of Shadows" "perhaps the best French film ever made on the [French] Resistance."Fact|date=July 2007


October 1942 in Nazi-occupied France. Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a distinguished civil engineer and the head of a Resistance network, has been arrested by Vichy French police and is placed in a camp. A few days later, the French authorities hand Gerbier over to the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, and he is transferred to headquarters in Paris for interrogation. Gerbier manages a daring escape by killing a guard and makes his way back to Marseilles where his network is based.

Gerbier's right-hand man, Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), has identified a young agent named Paul as the informant who betrayed him to the Vichy police. With the help of Guillaume Vermersch a.k.a. "Le Bison" (Christian Barbier), a burly French Foreign Legion veteran, Gerbier and Lepercq take Paul to a safe house to execute him. They are met there by Claude Ullmann a.k.a. "Le Masque" (Claude Mann), a young upstart eager to prove himself. The execution cannot be done as planned, by shooting, because of a family next door, and in the end the traitor is strangled.

Lepercq happens upon lost friend in a bar, Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a handsome, risk-loving, former pilot. Upon Lepercq's offer, Jean-François joins the Resistance. On his first mission to Paris, he meets Mathilde (Simone Signoret in a role loosely modeled after real-life Resistance hero Lucie Aubrac) who under the guise of a homemaker is one of the linchpins of Gerbier's network, unbeknownst to her family. His work done, Jean-François pays a surprise visit to his elder brother Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a renowned philosopher who lives a detached, scholarly life in his Paris mansion. (Luc Jardie's character is based on the actual philosopher/resistance leader Jean Cavaillès). In fact, later in the film Gerbier is seen in hiding reading several of Jardie's books under the titles of Cavaillès prewar works.

Meanwhile, through a complex operation Gerbier and Luc Jardie travel to Free French headquarters in London via a British submarine. On the sub Gerbier finds out Luc Jardie is actually the "Grand Patron" (Big Boss), the head of all Resistance networks whose identity is a closely guarded secret.

In London, Gerbier organises additional logistical support for the resistance and Luc Jardie is decorated by Charles de Gaulle himself. Gerbier takes shelter from an air raid in a night club. Gerbier must, however, cut his trip short when he learns that the Gestapo has captured Lepercq. He parachutes back to France and finds shelter in a château near Annecy in the French Alps. Meanwhile, Mathilde has taken command after Lepercq's arrest. Learning that Lepercq is detained in a maximum-security Gestapo prison in Lyon, she devises an audacious escape plan. Jean-François, who has been sitting silently through the discussion of the plan, makes his decision. He writes a letter of resignation to Gerbier and mails an anonymous letter to the Gestapo to incriminate himself. His gamble is successful: after a brutal interrogation, he is placed in the same cell as Lepercq. Lepercq has been repeatedly tortured and lies on his bunk barely alive.

Dressed as a German military nurse, and accompanied by "Le Masque" and "Le Bison" wearing German uniforms, she arrives at the gate of the Lyon prison in a stolen German ambulance with a forged order for Lepercq's transfer to Gestapo headquarters. However, the prison doctor, though duped by the order, examines the moribund Lepercq and pronounces him unfit for transport. Mathilde had not anticipated that contingency and can only leave the prison empty-handed. Jean-François, seeing that any chance of escape is now lost, tells Lepercq that he has several cyanide pills and offers him one (hiding from him the fact that he in fact only has one pill).

On the run again after the Gestapo has discovered his Annecy hideout, Gerbier meets Mathilde in a Lyon restaurant for debriefing. To Mathilde, who urges him to escape to London in view of the mounting danger—she has seen a poster with his face on the wall of the prison. Mathilde departs, but a happenstance Vichy police raid of the restaurant for food rationing violations captures Gerbier. He is handed over to the Germans and, after a few days in prison, is taken with his cellmates to a firing range where an SS officer explains the sadistic game where the prisoners are to race to the far end of the room as the machine gun firing squad fires upon them. As the shooting starts, Mathilde's team, who had been lying in wait on the roof of the corridor, throws smoke bombs into the line of fire to block the Germans' view, then throws a line to Gerbier who narrowly escapes. "Le Bison" then drives Gerbier to an abandoned farmhouse deep in the countryside, where he is to wait for the situation to cool down.

After three weeks of solitude, Gerbier receives the unexpected visit of Luc Jardie who has come to seek his advice after Mathilde has been arrested. Despite Gerbier's earlier warning, Mathilde was carrying a photo of her daughter in her wallet when she was caught. The Gestapo offers her a choice: either Mathilde tells all about the network or her daughter will be sent to a military brothel in Poland. The "Grand Patron" has barely finished explaining the situation when "Le Masque" and "Le Bison" arrive. Jardie, wanting his presence to remain secret, hides in the back room while the two men hand over a coded status report telling that Mathilde has been released the day before and that two Resistance men have been picked up the same afternoon. Gerbier orders Mathilde's immediate execution, but "Le Bison" refuses to carry out the order and swears to prevent Gerbier from killing her. As a fight is about to break out, Jardie emerges from the back room and defuses the tension by the sheer force of his personality. He convinces "Le Bison" that the only reason Mathilde acted the way she did—betraying only minor agents, convincing the Gestapo to release her under the pretext of leading them to her network—was to give the Resistance a window of opportunity to kill her, thereby sparing the network and her daughter. "Le Bison" reluctantly agrees to take part in the operation and Jardie announces that he too will be present as a final homage to Mathilde. Later, however, Jardie reveals to Gerbier that that the argument he presented to "Le Bison" is purely speculative.

A few days later, Mathilde is walking the streets of Paris when Jardie and his men pull up next to her in a stolen "Wehrmacht" car. Seeing them, Mathilde freezes and keeps her eyes locked into Jardie's while "Le Bison" slowly pulls out a pistol and fires two fatal shots upon which the car speeds away. As the film comes to an end, silent text screens tell us the eventual fate of the four men: "Le Masque" will manage to swallow his cyanide pill in time, "Le Bison" will be beheaded in a German prison, Jardie will die under torture having betrayed no other name than his own—and Gerbier, will decide not to run this time.

The final shot is a POV from within the car, the Arc de Triomphe prominent in the windshield, until a soldier literally waves them away.

DVD releases

"Army of Shadows" was released on DVD in Region 2 by the British Film Institute in November 2006 and in Region 1 by the Criterion Collection in May 2007.


* Lino Ventura - Philippe Gerbier
* Paul Meurisse - Luc Jardie
* Jean-Pierre Cassel - Jean-François Jardie
* Simone Signoret - Mathilde
* Claude Mann - Claude Ullmann a.k.a. "Le Masque"
* Paul Crauchet - Félix Lepercq
* Christian Barbier - Guillaume Vermersch a.k.a. "Le Bison"
* Serge Reggiani - The hairdresser
* André Dewavrin a.k.a. Colonel Passy - as himself
* Alain Dekok - Legrain
* Alain Mottet - Camp commander
* Alain Libolt - Paul Dounat
* Jean-Marie Robain - Baron de Ferté-Talloire
* Albert Michel - "Gendarme"
* Denis Sadier - Gestapo prison doctor

Critical reception

Top ten lists

The film appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2006. [cite web|url= |title=Metacritic: 2006 Film Critic Top Ten Lists |accessdate=2008-01-08 |publisher=Metacritic]

*1st - David Ansen, "Newsweek"
*1st - Ella Taylor, "LA Weekly"
*1st - Glenn Kenny, "Premiere"
*1st - Manohla Dargis, "The New York Times"
*1st - Scott Foundas, "LA Weekly"
*1st - Stephanie Zacharek, "Salon"
*2nd - Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Chicago Reader" (tied with "Statues Also Die")
*2nd - Michael Sragow, "The Baltimore Sun"
*2nd - Nathan Lee, "The Village Voice"
*2nd - Wesley Morris, "The Boston Globe"
*3rd - Stephen Hunter, "The Washington Post"
*4th - Shawn Levy, "The Oregonian"
*4th - Sheri Linden, "The Hollywood Reporter"
*5th - Marjorie Baumgarten, "The Austin Chronicle"
*7th - Richard James Havis, "The Hollywood Reporter"
*7th - Richard Schickel, "TIME" magazine
*8th - Michael Wilmington, "Chicago Tribune"General top ten
*Steven Rea, "The Philadelphia Inquirer"
*V.A. Musetto, "New York Post"


External links

* [ Criterion Collection essay] by Amy Taubin

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