With noir classics like Bob Le Flambeur, Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai, famed French director Jean-Pierre Melville built his stellar career on films about strong-willed outcasts often outwitted by fate. While his heroes and anti-heroes in these films were usually likable, they also operated outside the law.

In Army of Shadows, Melville's Resistance characters-inspired by actual war heroes as recreated by novelist Joseph Kessel-also operate outside the law, but these were the despicable laws forged and/or enforced by the Nazis, their zealous French "milice" (police) partners in evil, and France's collaborationist government.

The film's ragtag team of resisters reflects the diversity (Communists, liberals, aristocrats, intellectuals, workers, et al.) of underground operatives who banded together to battle the Nazi occupiers from within. Melville's film gives us Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a profoundly decent man, paragon of quiet dignity and unlikely warrior; Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), the wealthy Parisian intellectual and author who secretly runs the team; François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), his young brother; Mathilde (Simone Signoret), the fearless operative and strategist; and loyal cell henchmen Felix (Paul Crauchet) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier).

Participating in cameos are Serge Reggiani as a sympathizing barber critical to one of Gerbier's escapes, and war hero Andre Dewavrin who, with the nom de guerre of "Colonel Passy," worked closely with London-based General Charles de Gaulle.

Army of Shadows provides great entertainment by virtue of Melville's supremely drawn characters and the ever more challenging chain of events that envelops them in their noble, terrifying, all-consuming mission to rid France of the Nazi occupiers. The cinematic journey, which ends with a horrible lesson regarding the unimaginable price that even the bravest of resisters sometimes had to pay, begins with Gerbier's arrest and escape from a Vichy (collaborationist) internment camp.

In episodic punches, the film goes on to suggest the brutality that resistance often required. Gerbier, with fellow partisans, settles a score with a traitor in the cell's midst. He arranges for delivery of a much-needed radio transmitter to Mathilde in Paris. With leader Jardie, he escapes to London off the Mediterranean via submarine to meet with de Gaulle, but Gerbier endures a harrowing flight and parachute jump back into France.
In Lyon, disaster strikes when the Germans arrest and torture Felix. An elaborate rescue scheme, with Mathilde disguised as a nurse and two partisans disguised as Germans, is all in vain. As for Gerbier, the Nazis grab him in a Lyon restaurant roundup. Mathilde miraculously orchestrates his escape, but, as happens in Melville films and war games, fate deals an ugly hand.

Army of Shadows, rich in the elegance, assurance and quasi-formality that often define Melville's style, is a gem that upscale filmgoers will appreciate for its artistry, craftsmanship and remarkable restoration.

-Doris Toumarkine