Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Army of Shadows / Le Cercle Rouge

A double helping of existential doom via Jean-Pierre Melville

Melville's most personal film, rooted in his wartime experience in the French Resistance, ARMY OF SHADOWS (1969) is a hard, tense drama, depicting man's capacity for both bravery and evil. In the winter of 1942-1943 as France exists under German occupation, an underground cell operates in the shadows. In the clandestine world of the Resistance the freedom fighters work against their enemies under the constant risk of betrayal, ordinary men and women in an extraordinary situation. Suffused throughout with a mood of foreboding the suspense, heightened with directorial mastery, reaches its peak as the Resistance attempt to free a prisoner from the Gestapo headquarters in one of Melville's trademark moments of iconic action.
Death by tea-towel
Was Melville the coolest director on the planet? As laconic as Hawks or grimly ironic as Billy Wilder. Julien Duvivier was another of these French directors I am discovering now (French label). I have already reviewed Melville's LEON MORIN PRETE (with Belmondo) here, and recently Delon in 1967's cooler than cool LE SAMURAI. 1969's ARMY OF SHADOWS may well be his ultimate and most personal masterpiece. It is a slow film one sinks into with no wish to hurry things along as these '40s cars drive around the French countryside and the tensions increase with no obvious set-pieces. It also looks like the 1940s as they really were...

Signoret as a nurse on a daring raid 
The cast is headed by Lino Ventura whom we see placed in a drab concentration camp and he eventually escapes. The first major problem our fighters encounter is when they catch an informer who has to be eliminated immediately - they take him to a house but cannot shoot him due to the thinness of the walls, a knife is not how they want to do it - so he has to be strangled with a tea-towel (above). Then there is the marvellous Mathilde, as good as any man, who plots to rescue one of their own from the Gestapo and also rescues Ventura. She though makes a fatal mistake in keeping a photograph of her daughter in her handbag ... Simone Signoret is of course simply marvellous here. Cast also includes Jean-Pierre Cassel (who makes an astonishing sacrifice of himself to the Gestapo), Claude Mann, Paul Meurisse. We also join Ventura in that airplane making his parachute drop, and a visit to wartime London. The colours throughout are muted. Perfect in every way then.

LE CERCLE ROUGE - I remember this playing in London in 1970 -this may be even cooler than LE SAMURAI and must have been an infuence on directors like Michael Mann and Tarantino. We have three thieves planning a heist and also focus on the policeman determined to catch them. As the blurb has it:

A thief, a fugitive and an alcoholic ex-cop are caught together in the thrall of destiny as the plan to carry out the ultimate robbery in one of the greatest heist movies of all time. Alain Delon, Gian-Maria Volonte and Yves Montand star as the elegant mis-matched trio, locked in an elaborate and dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the inscrutable police inspector Andre Bourvil, who is determined to foil their attempts to pull off the perfect crime. As the day of the heist dawns the story unfolds with all four players determined to cheat fate, in this masterpiece of fatalistic crime cinema.

Like ARMY OF SHADOWS this is a slow, leisurely film that takes its time - 135 minutes - to present this abstract dream-world, where men live by their own code, a gangster code with the values of the outside world conspicuously absent.  Melville claimed he wanted to shoot a film noir in colour and in many ways he succeeded. The two primary influences for this film were John Huston's 1950 heist movie THE ASPHALT JUNGLE and Jules Dassin's RIFIFI (1955). But unlike these films, Melville tells us almost nothing about his criminals. Why was Corey (Delon) in jail? Why was his associate, Vogel (Volonté) arrested in the first place? Or why the ex-police marksman Jansen (Montand) left the force, was it his alcoholism?
We never learn the motivations behind their actions and never find out what drives these men. Women are even more absent than in his earlier films, with the "emotional" ties exclusively between men. They don't even seem to have personal lives - the police inspector also lives a solitary life devoted to his cats.

Melville in his usual cowboy hat avec Delon
It starts off with Bourvil escorting prisoner Volante on a train - he makes his escape and flees across country ending up in the boot of Delon's car. Delon knows he is there as they approach a roadblock ... and they defeat the gunmen sent to eliminate them... meanwhile Montand has the DTs as he sees giant spiders, rats and iguanas climbing all over him in bed. Then there is the heist itself carried out in silence as usual and another grim aftermath ... 2 more from the Melville box set then, with a few more more to catch up with: I saw LE FLIC (Delon & Deneuve) dubbed on release in '72, it may work better now in French, there is also Belondo in LE DOULOS, and BOB LE FLAMBEUR.


  1. These are scintillating films made at a time when expectations were high of cinema. We could feel a darkness we dared not live. I agree that CGI almost leaves me cold, so it's good to remind ourselves of what once was possible. Great reviews Michael.

  2. Thanks again Emma - its so satisfying settling down with a good French box set, whether its Melville or Chabrol, Varda or Demy, Delon or Belmondo ... we only see the tip of the French iceberg here in London !

  3. And of course catching up with an old Jean Gabin or Gerard Philipe - I have quite a few of Gerard's to catch up with too. Francois Ozon too of course.