Sunday, August 13, 2006

Movie: Army of Shadows (1969)

I’ll keep this simple. Go, right now, to the Rialto Pictures website. See if this movie will be playing anywhere near you in the coming months. And then move heaven and earth to be there.

I have been waiting to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s French Resistance drama since April 28, when I read Manohla Dargis’ rave review in the New York Times. (That’s also at the Rialto Pictures website. Really, you should have gone there already.) Even if she hadn’t called it a masterpiece, I would have seen it. Melville may be my favorite filmmaker. His crime dramas are precision entertainments that also depict an entire philosophy of masculinity, one that embraces both grand gestures and hard choices. A few years ago Rialto reissued the full cut of Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge. Seeing it in a small theater on a blustery day, the clicking of the projector audible, the film’s autumnal palette matching that of the world outside, remains one of the high points of my movie-going life.

But Army of Shadows may be Melville’s crowning achievement. Never released in the United States until now, it features all the style, the tension, the sheer panache of his thrillers. But this time the stakes are as high as they can be. For every heart-stopping moment there’s a heartbreaking one, in which Melville says profound things about the human condition in the most dire of circumstances. An exchange of coats between two strangers. Or a scene in which a Resistance fighter, on a brief reprieve in London, ducks into a club during an air raid and realizes that the servicemen and women inside won’t stop dancing no matter where the bombs fall. Shades of that Kung Fu Monkey post I linked to the other day.

Shadows is the rare Melville film in which a woman plays a key role. And what a woman – Simone Signoret, keeping her efforts a secret from her own family.

Lino Ventura is hugely impressive in the lead. For years, I only knew the actor for his performance in The Medusa Touch, a godawful horror film that sold itself with a poster showing Richard Burton’s massive, craggy head beneath the word “Telekinesis.” (Anybody who believes in telekinesis, raise my hand.) Medusa is one of those movies cobbled together with international money, which means international casting. Which means there’s a scene explaining why Ventura, a French cop, is investigating cases for Scotland Yard.

But thanks to Rialto, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for Ventura, a one-time Greco/Roman wrestling champion. He’s been featured in three sterling crime dramas re-released by the company: Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, Elevator to the Gallows, and Classe Tous Risques. The first two of those films are now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. So is Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, for that matter. Do yourself a favor and watch them now.

If the pattern holds, Army of Shadows will be out in a deluxe edition soon enough. It certainly deserves to be. Let me continue to make this simple: Army of Shadows is not just the best movie I’ve seen this year, it’s the best I’ve seen in ages.

Update: Shame-Faced

Instead of a new post, a golden oldie from this site on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.