Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
From: Andy Horbal, Mirror/Stage:
"Army of Shadows" actually begins with an epigram: "Unhappy memories! Yet I welcome you… you are my long-lost youth… "
Perhaps a French person would immediately recognize the film's subsequent opening shot as the ultimate unhappy memory, but it took a bit longer for this American viewer to grasp the significance of what he was seeing. The transition from a black screen with white letters to the Arc de Triomphe towering over a frame also marked by a pallid, even sickly, gray morning light is like the shock of abruptly waking up in the middle of a dream. The sound of marching drifts in from somewhere offscreen. ...
After a few seconds a column of soldiers emerges from the left of the frame. Dwarfed by the monument, they look like a line of black ants. A few more seconds and the cadence of their footfalls (which seem to grow steadily louder and more ominous) is joined by the sound of a military march. The beginning of the column reaches the middle of the Arc and sharply pivots right towards the camera, towards us.
All this time the camera has remained stationary, but as the soldiers grow larger it begins to tilt down, recentering the frame to accommodate them. By this time anyone with even a casual familiarity with World War II imagery has recognized the Roman-style standard, the helmets, the dark gray uniforms . . . these soldiers, these Nazi soldiers, have now nearly overwhelmed the frame, just as their martial din threatens to overwhelm our senses. The Arc de Triomphe, which once made these troops look pathetically small, like little toy soldiers, is practically gone, consumed (devoured) by darkness. At the very last moment before the soldiers burst through the screen: a freeze-frame. It lingers for a few more seconds, and then disappears.
Thus begins "Army of Shadows," the magnum opus of a master of the cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville. In the interview with Rui Nogueira that's included in the liner notes of the very fine Criterion issue of the film, Melville called this opening shot, "perhaps the most expensive in the history of French cinema," one of only two in his career that he was truly proud of. While I think he's being excessively modest, it's hard to argue with his assertion that this shot represents one of his finest moments.
Even at twenty-five million old francs, this shot is wonderfully economical. Just think of how much back story is crammed into these two minutes: France's overconfidence in her own might, her inability to recognize the danger of the German threat, the tragedy of realizing too late what has transpired. And then there's marvelous way that the scene draws power from its setting: Whether by design or by accident I don't know, but it was shot at 6AM and the early morning light couldn't be more perfect. In addition to the bleary-eyed, half-awake unreality that it lends to the scene, the somber gray sky also carries the weight of inevitability.
Most importantly, though, this shot, with its poker-faced, fixed-vantage view of an extraordinary event, establishes the tone of what you might call "documentary sensationalism" that characterizes the film. In this regard it reminds me of the opening image from another favorite World War II movie, Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One" (which, incidentally, deserves an Opening Shot entry all its own), a baroque tableau that at first blush couldn't be more different from Melville's historical recreation, but that performs the same function.
Both of these films vacillate between the outrageous and the mundane, though it's sometimes difficult to tell which is which. They create an atmosphere that is unstable, but without ever taking refuge in a clichéd idea of war as madness or absurdity: The events depicted are occasionally far-fetched, but always somehow believable. Thus, while the more incomprehensible horrors of this war (the Dresden firebombing, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust) rarely figure in the films themselves, which are both told from the limited perspectives of small, fairly insular groups, they register subtextually as all-too possible outcomes of the conflict. Because these opening shots plunge us immediately into the turbulent worlds the films inhabit, though, crucially denying us the chance to orient ourselves, we only recognize these "explanations" later –- for the duration of the film we, like the characters we watch, can only struggle to stay afloat and abreast of the action.
"Army of Shadows": final shot.
"The Big Red One."
I think of "The Big Red One" again whenever I see the last shot of "Army of Shadows," which (like so many of the entries in the first flight of the Opening Shots Project) revisits the first. It would be too difficult to discuss this shot without "spoiling" the film (a custom I observe when writing on other people's sites), so by way of explaining the melancholy that always sets in after I've finished watching it, I'll simply close with "The Big Red One"'s last line:
"I'm gonna dedicate my book to those who shot but didn't get shot, because it's about survivors, and surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean."
JE: Thanks again, Andy, for a splendid contribution and for inaugurating the next round of Opening Shots. (I hope that, even though you shuttered "No More Marriages!," you'll continue to write more film criticism!)
The stationary aspect of this most powerful of establishing shot adds to its chilling effect. It begins as a "still" (just the Arc -- no sign of motion) and ends on a freeze-frame. The camera doesn't move, except for the slight tilt you mention. Part of the mounting horror, as you describe, is the realization that these are Nazis, marching inexorably toward you until they all but blot out the image. (It's also a much more dramatic way of announcing the time and place than, say, the usual title card with location and date.) Then, in the final shot, we glimpse the Arc, like hope itself, through the windshield of a moving car, squeezed between the silhouettes of two Resistance men. A Nazi appears with a red "stop" sign, the car turns to the right, another building fills the frame like a wall, and this profoundly, unshakably sad movie comes to a halt. As in the first shot, it is blocked.
The opening, it seems to me, is a kind of psychological preparation for the rest of the movie, which emphasizes stasis. Perhaps the stasis of recollection, of those "unhappy memories" that are frozen in place until time washes them away. But then, that's what this film (and Fuller's "Big Red One") are about: preserving the memories of those who fought.
I can't think of a movie that better visualizes the idea of "Resistance" than Melville's. All the way through, the Resistance characters are pushing against (usually unseen) forces of menace that feel pervasive and unstoppable. Doom hangs in the air, overwhelming hope, almost (but not quite) suffocating idealism. The movie provides no real "victories" for the Resistance -- just minor, compromised successes and a few narrow escapes. The radios get through, but they need a new component because the frequency has changed. The daring mission to London is brought off, but the Brits can't fully deliver. The prison break operation is a success, but the patient dies. Even the rescue of Gerbier occurs after the point of despair and utter hopelessness, in a black cloud that threatens to blot out... everything.
One of the key moments is Gerbier's breathless escape from the Hotel Majestic (preceded by static shots in a marble chamber and the echo of a ticking clock that seems to mark time not passing). It's perhaps the one unambiguously thrilling triumph in the movie -- though, off-screen, Gerbier's heroic unnamed accomplice is perhaps not so fortunate. Fleeing the Nazi hotel headquarters, Gebier runs down a dark sidewalk, turns a corner and runs down another block before ducking into a barber salon. If you look at these two consecutive shots closely, you'll see that he's running down the same street both times. He's running, but he's not really getting anywhere. (And, in the end, the title tells us that Gerbier "decided he wouldn't run.") Now, maybe re-using the same street (and the same dolly track) was just a matter of filmmaking efficiency, a way to save time and money. But there it is. It's noticeable. And I'd argue that it adds (subconsciously?) to the overall feel of stasis and frustration. This is a film about heroic losers -- plain-clothed soldiers who lost and won many incremental battles, and paid for them with their lives, but who (long after the movie ends) wound up helping to win the war. But the movie itself doesn't mention that. It just tells us how the characters' lives came to an end, up to February 13, 1944 and not one day beyond....