Blu-ray Review HTF BLU-RAY REVIEW: Army of Shadows

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  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer

    Apr 24, 2006
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    Charlotte, NC
    Real Name:
    Matt Hough
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    Army of Shadows (Blu-ray)
    Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville 

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1969
    Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1   1080p   AVC codec  
    Running Time: 145 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo, PCM 1.0 French
    Subtitles: English

    Region:  A
    MSRP:  $ 39.95

    Release Date: January 11, 2011

     Review Date: December 31, 2010  

    The Film


    Jean-Pierre Melville’s tribute to the brave and brazen men and women who made up the French Resistance makes for an engrossing and poignant drama in Army of Shadows. It’s not a time period he looks at through rose-colored glasses, however: the people involved in the underground movement against the occupying Gestapo lived a day-by-day existence often under imminent threat of exposure, capture, torture, and inevitable death. Each moment could be their last, and they knew it. Consequently, friendships, though present, were never prized above the mission, and the mission, the undermining of Nazi control over their beloved homeland, was everything, more important even than their own lives. Woe be to any member of the Resistance who put even a family member’s safety above the work these patriots were doing.

    Melville’s screenplay based on the book by Joseph Kessel is episodic in nature, and the focus shifts back and forth among three primary participants. The film covers an approximate five month period at the height of the Nazi occupation in France, and the agents working in the movement are as ordinary looking as one’s next door neighbors. Lino Ventura takes center stage for much of the movie as Philippe Gerbier, a stoic but resourceful leader in the movement. Jean-Pierre Cassel plays the charismatic Jean-Francois, envious of his writer brother Luc (Paul Meurisse) living in relative peace and prosperity in Paris, but little knowing that his older brother has his own secrets. And the renowned Simone Signoret makes an admirably steely Mathilde whose overwhelming love for her daughter might lead to her undoing. These four characters along with Christian Barbier as the muscle of the group and Claude Mann as a new recruit full of youthful vigor turn up in a series of incidents that demonstrate what it was about the Resistance workers that was worthy of celebration.

    Melville’s direction of some really tense scenes, especially a throat-clutching dash from a machine gun firing squad and some quick, brutal executions for escape or self-preservation are almost numbing in their pace and power. Yet, one has no trouble ascertaining his bitterness in a short sequence set in London where Gerbier on Resistance business is able to attend Gone With the Wind and a dance at a soldiers’ club noting how other than enduring some nighttime air raids, the British were living in relative freedom and comfort while Frenchmen were under the cruel thumb of the Nazis where the constant inspection points, no protection from illegal arrest, and the simple act of staying alive was at the forefront of every French citizen’s thoughts daily. An extended sequence where a trio of Resistance fighters try to rescue their leader from the midst of the Gestapo headquarters is beautifully sustained without any Dirty Dozen-style heroics to spice up the visuals or jar the intricate, modulated pacing.

    After bearing quite a few nerve-wracking experiences during the film’s almost two and a half hours, we get end title cards on each of the main characters letting us know their ultimate fates as the war dragged on. They serve as melancholy reminders of the price of freedom, something the entire film does a quietly admirable job illustrating without obvious bravado or excesses in derring-do. As a celebratory film honoring the achievements of these loyal freedom fighters, Army of Shadows is a notable and meaningful success.

    Video Quality


    The film is framed in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Color has been slightly desaturated from the image, contrast has been dialed down to leave a somewhat milky texture, and color timing has left a slightly blue tint to the image. (Clips from the movie taken from different prints in the bonus features look nothing like the film on display.) Thus, detail isn’t quite as intricate as one might expect, and sharpness is above average but not outstanding for the most part. On the other hand, there isn’t a blemish or video artifact to be seen, surprising for a film of this age, and black levels even with the slighter contrast are impressive. There is some banding noticeable in some of the darker sections of the film. The white subtitles are quite legible. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.

    Audio Quality


    The disc offers both PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo encodes. I watched half of the film using each mode. The PCM track sounds a bit dry and tinny compared to the richer and more flavorful DTS-HD MA track which seems to have a little more bass and definitely more ambience than its monaural disc mate. Dialogue is well recorded. There are no instances of hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter on the soundtrack.

    Special Features


    The disc contains an audio commentary by film historian Ginette Vincendeau. Ms. Vincendeau’s track is a beautifully prepared treatise on the film, but her tone is somewhat dry and scholarly and thus seems overly wordy. Certainly she notes all of the film’s important characteristics and substantiates its claim to exalted status among the world’s film treasures, and for that, it’s a valuable asset to the set.

    Unless otherwise noted, the featurettes are presented in 1080i.

    Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme’s 14 minute interview in French with English subtitles covers his work on this film, especially his standing up for his principles when he disagreed with director’s Melville’s ideas on lighting and use of lenses. He also elaborates on the film’s subdued color scheme and the director’s insistence that bold primary colors be eliminated from the film’s color palette. There is also a 7-minute silent restoration comparison in 1080p showing before and after conditions of the film. It's quite a revealing experience to see the horrendous condition the film has been rescued from.

    Film editor Francoise Bonnet’s 10½ minute interview in English covers her work with Army of Shadows as well as her Oscar-winning work on Z and her early career working as an assistant for her mother, a famous film editor in her own right.

    A 4-minute program entitled Jean-Pierre Melville et L’aimee des Ombres features wonderful behind the scenes footage with the director and his actors along with a brief statement of his philosophy behind his direction.

    A 30-minute black and white television program from 1969 entitled L’invite du Demanche features interviews with the director (who was still editing Army of Shadows) and three of the actors from the film. They speak sweetly about their working relationship (contrary to some comments from others elsewhere on this disc about his work with actors), and the director himself surprisingly admits doubts about his finished product.

    One of the set’s rarer and most interesting features is the 34-minute propaganda documentary Le Journal de la Resistance narrated by Noel Coward. This film shows actual footage shot during the final six days of the German occupation of Paris with freedom fighters going into the streets to take control of their city from the pockets of German soldiers who still remained there. Taken from the archives of the Imperial War Museum, it’s an invaluable look at the Resistance at work. It’s in 1080p.

    Actress Simone Signoret and activist Lucie Arbric have a brief 5-minute interview recorded in 1984 in which Signoret speaks about her role in the film based in part on Arbric’s life and the difficulties she had portraying people she admired so much and about whom she felt so unworthy to be playing.

    A 1973 black and white French television program Ouvrez les Guillenets brings together four famous men of the era to debate their roles in and the philosophy behind the underground Resistance movement. Included among them is Andre Dewavrin who played himself in the movie, a freedom fighter known as Colonel Passy who worked alongside General Charles de Gaulle in organizing the various workers into a unified front.

    Two theatrical trailers are available for viewing. The original theatrical trailer and the U.S. 2006 release trailer both run 1 ½ minutes in 1080i.

    As usual, there is an enclosed booklet crammed with worthwhile features. Among its 45 pages are stills from the film as well as behind the scenes shots, a critique of the movie by film scholar Amy Taubin, historian Robert Paxton’s essay on Melville’s screenplay and specifically the characters he used in his film and their real-life counterparts, and a fascinating 1971 interview with the director by writer Rui Nogueira who asks questions about the making and distribution of the film that anyone fascinated by the movie would love to have answered.

    The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

    In Conclusion

    4.5/5 (not an average)

    It took Jean-Pierre Melville a quarter of a century to get this film made, a dream project he worked tirelessly to secure financing for. How terrific that the end product was so worth the time and effort! Army of Shadows is yet another haunting World War II story to add to the growing list of memorable films made by filmmakers around the globe based on that worldwide confrontation. It’s well worth seeking out on this wonderfully complete Blu-ray release. Highly recommended!

    Matt Hough

    Charlotte, NC


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