Imagine what it would have been like if, upon its release, The Godfather had been deemed a failure and sank into oblivion. No one would look at it or think of it until nearly 40 years later, when it would re-emerge to finally earn the acclaim it deserves. That’s roughly what happened to Jean-Pierre Melville’s extraordinary 1969 French Resistance drama Army of Shadows, dismissed by French critics upon its initial release and unseen in the United States until 2006, when it topped critics’ best-of lists nationwide and became a 37-year-old overnight success—one that Melville, who died in 1973 at age 55, didn’t live to see. The film is gorgeous—and shattering. The regally leonine Lino Ventura plays a Resistance operative who’s captured by the authorities, uses his wiles to escape, and oversees the quietly brutal execution of the man who betrayed him—and that’s just in the first 45 minutes or so. In adapting Joseph Kessel’s 1943 book of the same name, Melville—who was himself a member of the Resistance—focuses not on spy-thriller heroics but on the workaday grind of fighting for the things you believe in. It’s such an elegantly made picture that, compared with some of the wilder film experiments of its era, it could easily have been viewed as old-fashioned. But it has endured; its mournful aura is a radio signal that still resonates, an elegy for the kind of hero who fights to the end, never expecting a medal.
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