Why We Fight
An Impeccable Wartime Thriller From French Crime Auteur
Today’s movies wouldn’t know what to do with the late Lino Ventura. The Italian-born former wrestler became an unlikely character actor in 1950s-’70s French movies, and while he never lost his grappling bulk, he could carry himself with a Continental grace on screen. He possessed a rugged face that never quite came into handsomeness’ sharp focus, probably due to his linebacker’s nose. But that almost brutish charisma made him perfect for the gentleman thugs that made him a minor star, men with sympathetic eyes that could instantly harden into a cold stare.
Ventura’s Philippe Gerbier is one such man. The poker-faced former engineer becomes a Marseilles-based French Resistance fighter in occupied France. He’s picked up while lunching after a clandestine meet. He barely bats an eye when German soldiers storm in and order everybody out, finishing what he wants of his meal. Soon he’s shackled at the wrists and ankles with a handful of other men, each shadowed by an armed guard as they file down a slate gray hallway. They enter a bigger hallway, where their irons are removed. In front of them is a concrete gray wall that looks a lifetime away. Behind them is a machine-gun crew. A Nazi officer informs them that if they make it to the far wall they will be shot with a different round of men. They won’t start shooting right away, just to be sporting.
The above scene comes from Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres), which makes its U.S. debut in a limited release this year and leaves sober, indelible marks on everything in its wake. Melville translates the novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel--the former Resistance man who also penned Belle de Jour--into a steely, stylish chess match of stoic friendships, unquestionable loyalties, and unpardonable betrayals. Sandwiched between two of Melville’s finest studies of criminals as exhausted humanists, 1967’s Le Samourai and 1970’s Le Cercle Rogue, it’s easy to read Shadow’s gangster fetishes--the trench coats with upturned collars, the hat brims riding tightly above eyes, the glances that convey paragraphs--as mere genre carryovers. But remember that Melville is actually his nom de guerre, the name the French Jew took when he was in the Resistance and Free France himself. And as with the novels of John le Carré, the espionage accouterments might feel like tired tropes, but given that the creators were actually there, perhaps some versions of truth inform such familiars.
This Resistance saga--a genre lousy with its own romantic visions in French cinema--is about nothing but the tense and anxious journey to see the next day’s sunrise. Absent are the usual soldier activities of a WWII picture--save the spine-stiffening opening shot of Germans troops marching by Paris’ Arc de Triomphe--as are the usual tales of sabotaging derring-do, surreptitious counterattacks, and cannily outsmarting the enemy. In their stead are nervous deliveries and covert passages, harried escapes through combinations of sheer fear and opportunism, and the unpleasant meting out of wartime justice. These Resistance fighters are just trying to stay alive. In one of the most brutal moments in recent memory, Gerbier and an accomplice calmly decide how to execute a traitor--the pistol is too loud, nobody has a good knife, there’s a towel in the kitchen--and then almost silently strangle the man. Almost silently.
Gerbier’s crew does include the usual suspects: dashingly handsome Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel) in his pilot’s leathers, the world-weary muscle Le Bison (Christian Barbier), dogged follower Felix (Paul Crauchet), organizational mastermind Luc (Paul Meurisse), and, the most fearless of the bunch, the middle-aged disguise master Mathilde (Simone Signoret, who conveys her nerves of steel in every nonchalant cigarette exhale). It’s the typical gang of common citizens elevated by uncommon times, but these fighters wear that patriotism as if it were a hair shirt.
In two words, this movie is near flawless. Do note, though, that Shadows is Melville at his most meticulous--the staging is tight and detached, the pace can feel glacial, and its visual palette a downer bombardment of midnight blues, gun-metal grays, mustard-walled safe houses, and barren streets trafficked only by the paranoid and the agents seeking them out. And while it’s not the typical Resistance yarn, it is contemporary with Marcel Ophüls’ devastating documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, which mined the problematic limbo of living among collaborators, resisters, and the people who didn’t choose sides. Melville and his movie never waver from their belief that fighting for France is the only right thing to do, a sentiment that could feel antiquated to late-1960s audiences--to say nothing of 21st-century Americans who continue to rationalize being pro-troops and anti-war. Of course, audiences now--as then--have the comfort of sitting in a theater already knowing what eventually happens with WWII. Army of Shadows dramatizes the human toll of fighting for something you believe in that is bigger and more important than you--whether that be deemed brave or not.