Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres)

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Studiocanal/ Jean-Pierre Melville / 1969 / France/Italy

Running Time: 145 minutes

Region Code: Region B

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Video: 1080p High Definition (MPEG-4 AVC encoded)

Audio: French Mono 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio

Language: French

Subtitles: Optional English (On/Off)

Adapted from the homonymous 1943 novel by French novelist and journalist Joseph Kessel (best known for his 1928 novel ‘Belle de Jour’, which inspired Luis Buñuel’s 1967 movie of the same name), and amalgamating Kessel’s personal experiences as a member of the French Resistance with other fictionalised accounts, Jean-Pierre Melville’s intense, claustrophobic and perfectly executed 1969 film ‘Army of Shadows’ follows the intense journey of a small band of French Resistance fighters, working with the Allied militaries and informers, and struggling to evade both capture and execution in German-controlled France during the middle stages of WWII.

Arguably Melville’s masterpiece, and most intelligent and nuanced work, the film was both a commercial and critical failure upon its original 1969 French release, being heavily censured and subsequently denounced by French film critics due to its significant political context in the wake of the great protests and strike of May 1968 (lasting two continuous weeks, involving 11,000,000 workers (22% of the population) and both bringing the economy to a virtual standstill and threatening to cause the collapse of the government of the then unappreciated, President Charles de Gaulle).

Though the film received acclaim and praise upon it’s UK release during the late 1970′s, it was subsequently banned within the US for almost four decades, until a celebration of Melville’s works, published in the famous Cahiers du cinéma, prompted a reassessment of this superb masterpiece, leading to a highly overdue and highly deserved 2006 restoration and reissue, and a subsequent official DVD release.

The final work in Melville’s great French Occupation or Resistance triptych, preceded by his debut feature Le Silence de la mer (1949) and the BAFTA-nominated ‘Léon Morin, prêtre’ (1961), ‘L’armée des ombres’ was to be the antepenultimate work in a 13-feature film in a career, spanning just 23 years (from 1949 – 1972) and released between his two highly acclaimed crime thrillers Le samouraï (1967) and Le cercle rouge (1970), before finally bowing out in style with his stylish and suitably fine swansong, ‘Un Flic’ (1972).

Combining meticulous directorial craftsmanship with astute mise en scene, visually sublime framing and scenic composition, and highly effective and beautifully balanced pacing and tension, ’L’armée des ombres’ proves a haunting, bleak and perfectly accomplished masterpiece of filmmaking, showcasing Melville at the very height of his directorial powers.

The rest of the production side of the film is faultless, with perfectly composed cinematography from Pierre L’homme and Walter Wottitz, slick editing from Academy Award-winner Françoise Bonnot (Z -1969) and suitably eerie and evocative score from composer Éric Demarsan.

Led by a superb performance from Lino Ventura in the central role of Philippe Gerbier, the head of the eponymous Resistance network, the film boasts an exceptionally strong and reliable ensemble cast, with fine performances from Paul Crauchet, Claude Mann, Christian Barbier, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Meurisse, and the ever impressive, Academy Award-winning Simone Signoret (Room at the Top – 1959), who had previously starred alongside Meurisse in the great 1955 suspense thriller ‘Les Diaboliques’.

This MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p High Definition Blu-ray presentation from Studiocanal delivers very impressive results and proves a significant upgrade from the previously available standard DVD releases. Colours and tones are particularly impressive and beautifully rendered, with a fine blend of earthy browns and cold blues and greys, effectively highlighting the cold, bleak and faded tone of the piece; contrast levels are strong and consistent, with the deep blacks and shadows appearing very impressive and well detailed in the dark, night scenes; and definition is very pleasing, with strong levels of fine detail and clarity. Some minor enhancement and digital noise reduction has been performed during the restoration to deliver a truly fine presentation, but it never detracts from the authentic feel of the film, with very minimal signs of any ageing, dirt, debris or scratching, and a fine layer of natural grain still present.

The French 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is also excellent and beautifully restored, with clean, crisp and stable dialogue, good (if not greatly challenged) dynamic range, no signs of any hiss or distortion and a nice presentation of Demarsan’s gently brooding score.

Special Features:

Army of Shadows – The Hidden Side of the Story -Documentary

Booklet on the movie written by Ginette Vincendeau, Professor and Film Critic

Overall:

Arguably Melville’s greatest achievement, ‘L’armée des ombres’ proves an intense, beautifully paced and perfectly executed piece of work. Melville is at the top of his game with this masterful exploration of French Resistance fighters during WWII, and his intricate direction and scenic composition are truly superb. A thrilling, compelling and essential piece of cinema in a fine blu-ray release from Studiocanal!! Very highly recommended!!

Release Date: 8 April, 2013:

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