Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Shall a man be known by his deeds or by the fruits thereof?

This scene can serve as illustration of the ethos, though perhaps not the look (which is mostly darker), of Army of Shadows (1969), an eyewitness account of the French resistance, and an inspiration and source for Flame and Citron. Hannah Erendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" with reference to the bureaucratic and mundane way in which the Final Solution was carried out. Army of Darkness might be said to be about the banality of the resistance of evil.

There are no fabulous daring raids, no destruction of huge ball-bearing plants, no mass assassination of Nazi bigwigs, no examples of individual heroism really at all. This is a movement whose energies are almost entirely engaged in survival. Like Washington's army (and that of Ho-Chi-Minh), all it has to do is stay intact through the end of the war in order to win. But that is no simple task, and as the clip above illustrates, it requires a frigid and efficient cruelty which hardly exists in peacetime.

Director Melville was best known for his laconic noir gangster films. Army of Darkness is to war films as Goodfellas is to gangster films. Both are about grubby, workaday violence, the glamor and romance fairly well stripped from them, in constant fear and danger of discovery to the point where fending off discovery overtakes the original object. Lino Ventura, so brilliant as the cornered yet cool criminal of Melville's Classes tous risques and Le deuxieme souffle, is similarly cool and virtually with affect in this film, merely exchanging one state of violent criminality for another, i.e., one is "bad" and the other is "good," so long as the ends justify the means.

Back in the 60s, all the talk was about "anti-heros." This was meant to refer to actors like Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, who didn't look like Clark Gable or Gary Cooper and didn't have morally unambiguous triumphs. But in fact most "anti-heroes" didn't accomplish anything. Sure, Ben married the girl in The Graduate, but that marriage didn't appear to promise salvation or even success beyond a few months. The bad guys beat the cops, the investigative reporter got killed by the conspirators, the cops shot the hero, all the 70s heroes lost.

The heroes of Army of Shadows win without triumphant, without victory. To persist is to win. This is true anti-heroism.

The film also marks the beginning of the de-glamorization of Simone Signoret, who plays a brave and skillful but not alluring resistance member, so worried about maintaining her connection with her daughter, that she dies for the sin of carrying the child's photograph. In order to fight inhumanity, one must shed one's own humanity.

This sounds like a dark, brittle, cold film. Maybe it is. But it is exhilarating in its capacity to embrace good and evil together and trust the audience to sort it all out. See it and be surprised you hadn't heard of it before.