I have seen Melville’s neglected and newly discovered masterpiece a number of times now on DVD. Unfortunately, I missed out on the chance of catching this film whilst it had a limited release but both Criterion and the BFI did a spot on job in the release of the DVD. Each viewing of ‘Army of Shadows’ not only demonstrates Jean Pierre Melville working at the peak of his powers but also how some films can be totally misunderstood by critics upon their original release. Film critic, Amy Taubin declared it as Melville’s masterpiece in her exhaustive and intelligent essay for the Criterion DVD release of the film. Taubin provides some kind of a plausible contextual explanation for the film’s rejection in 1969:
‘The timing of Army of Shadows’ initial French release, in the fall of 1969, could not have been worse. Most serious French critics, including those of the influential Cahiers du cinéma, savaged the film for what they saw as its glorification of General Charles de Gaulle, who, then president, was despised as the betrayer of the May 1968 student uprising’
Army of Shadows: Out of the Shadows, Amy Taubin
This seems highly probable especially considering how an indistinct snobbery was also beginning to take hold of French cinema. Directors who represented the old guard were grouped together as symbolic of a cinematic orthodoxy that required challenging and even defeating by a radicalism associated with the New Left. Army of Shadows is a complex and ambitious film, and regarded by some in the circles of French film criticism as the best film about the French resistance in World War II. Melville does exceptionally well, creating and sustaining an incredibly tangible mood that is sublimely fatalistic especially in how it represents the lives of what were the quiet, forgotten heroes of a war that has often been recreated the perspective of soldiers. Melville’s film never received an American release until recently in 2006 but it is beguiling cinema and compellingly rendered through an engrossing narrative. This is one of the best films of the 1960s and perhaps Melville’s greatest achievement.