The Best Spy Movie Ever Isn’t James Bond — It’s This


Has anyone exerted as much influence over the spy genre as Ian Fleming? Examples of espionage fiction may have predated his transition from naval officer to novelist by well over a century, but it wasn’t until the appearance of the British Secret Service’s finest asset, James Bond, that it became a cultural phenomenon (a feeling strengthened by the character’s legendary reinvention as one of cinema’s greatest icons from 1962’s Dr. No onwards). The success of the 007 franchise was a watershed moment for the genre, establishing a framework that everything released since has either deliberately aped or purposefully avoided. Seventy years on, the formula has lost none of its appeal… but it has contributed to the false impression of what being a spy is actually like. Of course, Ian Fleming knew exactly what he was doing when he put entertainment on a higher pedestal than realism, but it should be obvious that life in the Secret Service isn’t laden with shootouts and car chases. Being a spy is not glamorous – if anything, it’s rather mundane – but it also has the potential to be a lonely and disheartening profession where innumerable lives are lost for negligible results. It’s this feeling at the heart of the 1969 masterpiece, Army of Shadows.


‘Army of Shadows’ Focuses on French Resistance Members During WWII

Jean-Pierre Cassel in Army of Shadows
Image via Valoria Films

Based on Joseph Kessel‘s 1943 book of the same name, Army of Shadows follows a small group of the French Resistance – specifically those associated with Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a former civil engineer who now leads a resistance cell based out of Lyon – during the country’s occupation by Nazi Germany. When the film starts, Gerbier has already been arrested on suspicion of being a spy. There’s no evidence to prove their doubts, but doubt is all the proof they need. Before long he’s imprisoned in an internment camp alongside everyone else who could potentially cause trouble, but they’re going to have to do better than that if they want to break Gerbier’s spirit. He understands his assignment. His work is not easy, but it is vitally important lest his country remains under the oppressive grip of tyranny forevermore. But there’s another element to Gerbier that his captors overlooked – perhaps the most critical of all. He may be an idealist, but he is also a realist. Gerbier knows that his life is irrelevant. All that matters is the cause, and if he must die to bring life to that dream then so be it. It’s a sad image, but that’s the job.

The rest of the film continues along this bleak path. After escaping the Gestapo during an interrogation attempt, Gerbier resumes his duties undeterred. The first order of business? Assassinating the colleague who betrayed him. This is not an act of petty revenge, but an unavoidable tragedy that Gerbier and his fellow conspirator Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet) execute with a frightening level of banality. They intend to shoot him, but the arrival of next-door’s neighbors forces a change of plan. “There’s a towel in the kitchen”, Gerbier reminds his collaborators, a line uttered without a trace of emotion. The killing itself happens with little ceremony, after which Gerbier and Lepercq depart as though nothing had ever happened. They may be good people, but they’re not afraid to do bad things – a philosophy that encapsulates the following two hours. Death is coming for them all, but that’s no excuse to not do their part. Welcome to the resistance, comrade. Leave your heroism at the door.

So, Army of Shadows doesn’t exactly make for an uplifting discussion, but we should count ourselves lucky that it’s available to discuss at all. When the film was released in September 1969, Cahiers du Cinéma – cinema’s most esteemed publication – launched a full-frontal assault on the film due to its perceived support of Charles de Gaulle, a key figure in the fight against Nazi Germany who had since been elected President of France (and, most importantly, was currently despised by the working-class population due to his handling of the May 68 demonstrations). Additionally, the controversial events of the Algerian War had soured the heroic notion of resistance campaigns, damaging the film further. The response was so dire that American distributors (who held the opinions of Cahiers du Cinéma as analogous to biblical scripture) chose not to release it, leading Army of Shadows to go largely unnoticed until its reappraisal in the mid-1990s. International audiences had to wait until 2006 – a whopping thirty-seven years after its initial release – before they could watch it in theatres, where it received a unanimously positive reception. It has since become a staple on “greatest films of all time” lists, and one wonders if its time in the wilderness contributed to this stunning turnaround.

RELATED: The 7 Essential Bond Movies You Need to See to Understand the Franchise

Director Jean-Pierre Melville Avoids Hollywood Spy Stereotypes

Army of Shadows (1969)
Image via Valoria Films

If the previous descriptions have piqued your interest, it’s worth noting that Army of Shadows isn’t for everyone. Director Jean-Pierre Melville – who adopted the pseudonym Melville while serving in the French Resistance to honor his favorite American author, Herman Melville – has no interest in presenting a romanticized view of espionage. Instead he cuts straight to the cold hard truth, resulting in a film that feels closer to a documentary than a piece of high-octane escapism. Army of Shadows may take place amidst the most photographed and referenced war in the history of entertainment, but it is absolutely not a war film. This is a film about people – specifically, desperate people being forced to do heinous things in the name of virtues they and everyone else had previously taken for granted. Melville does not care about the war itself, but rather the consequences said war has on the ordinary citizen, allowing him to turn a potentially derivative story into a subversive masterwork that shuns the usual “good vs evil” framework.

The most surprising part of Army of Shadows is just how little Gerbier and his cohorts achieve. The resistance spends most of the runtime “fixing” their own problems, either by murdering suspected traitors or enacting grandiose rescue attempts against those who have been captured – the latter giving rise to a pseudo-heist sequence that sees Army of Shadows flirting with more typical spy hijinks. Lepercq has been apprehended by the Gestapo, but Mathilde (Simone Signoret) – a housewife who, unbeknownst by her family, moonlights for the French Resistance – devises a plan to rescue him. Together with two accomplices and a few shadily acquired uniforms, she hoodwinks herself into their headquarters under the guise of being a nurse, here to transfer Lepercq to a local hospital. It’s classic Bond subterfuge, complete with eagle-eyed guards and last-minute mishaps that sees Mathilde swiftly changing her plan on the fly to avoid blowing her disguise. Throw in a well-timed explosion from a well-placed bomb that Mathilde had planted earlier, and it wouldn’t be dissimilar to the gloriously bombastic opening of 1995’s GoldenEye.

But Melville resists such temptations. Instead the sequence comes to a disappointing climax when Mathilde is informed by the prison doctor that Lepercq is too unfit to travel, leaving her foolproof plan in tethers. A lesser director would have used this opportunity to unleash “plan B” (aka cliché scriptwriting code for “all guns blazing”), but Army of Shadows isn’t that kind of film. This is a film made by someone who experienced this job first-hand, and he knows exactly how deadly (and demoralizing) it is. Mathilde could protest, but doing so risks countless lives when only one is currently on the cards. And so – to the anger of everyone watching – she leaves, condemning Lepercq to death. Rarely does a film dare to show its protagonists failing so cataclysmically at their goals, but in Army of Shadows, such things are an intrinsic part of their reality. What’s done is done, and continuing with their goal undeterred is the best way they can honor Lepercq. It’s a cruel fate, but for characters who signed away their chance at a happy retirement on the day they agreed to do this, it’s one they all know they’re going to have to face eventually.

‘Army of Shadows’ Avoids Overblown Set Pieces

Army of Shadows is a cold film, and much of that comes from Melville’s restrained directing. Melville understands that his film is powerful enough to speak for itself, and that any attempt to accentuate its impact would have an adverse effect. As such, Melville resides himself to his role as impassive watcher, constructing the narrative with such elegance that you never even realize he was there. The cinematography is precise but unobtrusive, the editing tight but invisible. Music is a rare occurrence, but the few times it is employed weaves seamlessly into the existing footage. Army of Shadows is the cinema of subtle movements and unspoken words – a thought that reaches its apex during a particularly tense scene where Gerbier hides in a barber’s shop to evade pursuing Germans. He plans to leave as soon as they’ve passed, but when the owner shows up, he feigns wanting a shave to deflect any suspicions. It’s an encounter fraught with unease as both men try to decipher the other while keeping up the veneer of normality, and Melville forces us to watch every moment. In the end, the owner does nothing more than hand Gerbier a different colored overcoat – a profoundly simple gesture that carries enormous implications.

Army of Shadows is a film that revels in ambiguity. Our characters – the titular army of shadows – are not heroes. Restructure the narrative around the petrified traitor from the start of the film and you’ll come away with a very different opinion of Gerbier, but even then, it’s hard to call him an outright villain. He’s not good, and he’s not evil, he’s just… Gerbier, a man caught in a tough situation and doing what he can to make it better. Even in a war as justified as WWII, the concept of heroes and villains is ludicrous, and Melville’s exploration of this moral uncertainty is what makes Army of Shadows compelling. It’s a genre picture with all the embellishments sanded off, resulting in a unique depiction of spy work that – while not as overtly thrilling as its Hollywood counterparts – still contains all the ingredients one expects from such films, albeit from a more grounded point of view that evokes the lifestyle of someone with expertise in counterintelligence. If James Bond is the fantasy, Army of Shadows is the bitter reality – that doesn’t make it a fun watch, but since when was that a requirement for a film?

Las Vegas News Magazine

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