#1 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.
This is the most perfect combination of Melville’s cool, dispassionate style and subject matter. He works well in the gangster/crime genres, but taking this sort of subdued, quiet approach to telling a story works extremely well when combined with the complete and total sense of danger felt by the Resistance in the early days of German occupation of France in World War II. The all encompassing sense of fear and dread is materially different when talking about the Resistance in its early days versus gangster who live big in their own little bubbles.
Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura, his star from Le Deuxieme Souffle with whom he was not on speaking terms throughout the whole shoot somehow) is captured by Vichy French forces and placed in an interment camp, and its obvious to the warden that Gerbier is important. Gerbier meets his fellow prisoners, in particular a young communist Legrain (Alain Dekok). Together, they concoct a plan to escape using Legrain’s access to the camp’s power plant as the starting point, but before they can execute their plan, Gerbier is taken up by the authorities and taken to German headquarters in Paris. We never see Legrain again.
I think this early episode is a great microcosm of the ever-present fear that Melville was going for in the film. Gerbier is in the Resistance. He’s being held despite the fact that there is a lack of evidence. The Vichy regime can all but do whatever they want. Inside, he meets someone he doesn’t know who says that they are a dedicated enemy of Germany, fascism, and Vichy. Gerbier trusts him, but the trust bites him. Was Legrain a plant in the camp? Was he placed there to entrap someone when instructed to get further evidence that could lead to execution? There’s no answer, but it’s a distinct possibility. It’s impossible to trust in this kind of world.
Gerbier escapes from German custody (including a scene in a barber shop where Gerbier has no idea the loyalties of the barber), and immediately jumps back into his Resistance activities. The first duty is to take Felix (Paul Crauchet) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier) to pick up Paul (Alain Libolt), the young man who gave up the information that led to Gerbier’s arrest. Meeting up with Le Masque (Claude Mann), they have to execute Paul in a remote house that is suddenly not as remote as they expected. They had planned on using a gun, but the report would carry too well. So, they have to execute Paul with much more intimate means, strangling him with a towel. Death in this world is personal and never easy. It’s hard to explain how great all of this stuff is. The fear of getting picked up by anyone is already established, so we get their need to be quiet. The pain of having to murder a baby-faced young man with, essentially, their bare hands, is palpable. And yet, it must be done. This is a hard world where the smallest of screwups can lead to death. There’s no other way through it.
With that accomplished, the rest of the film is a series of events as this small cell of Resistance tries to make its impact in the war. They recruit a new member Jean-Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) whose brother Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) is the Big Chief, and both involvements in the Resistance are completely unknown to each other. Luc must flee France for London to work with English sources to try and supply the Resistance, and Gerbier goes with him. Meanwhile, back in France, Felix gets picked up by the SS, necessitating a hasty return to France by Gerbier that includes a parachute drop in the middle of the night.
The plan to rescue Felix, not to prevent him from speaking but only to save him the agony of weeks under torture, is organized by Mathilde (Simone Signoret), and extremely capable and diligent agent who masterminds the whole operation herself. She has only one flaw, and that is her daughter. She loves her daughter too much to the point that she carries around her picture on her even though she knows that she shouldn’t.
The mission to save Felix is one of those great, quiet, and incredibly tense sequences that Melville had become really good at. Mathilde takes Le Masque and Le Bison in a stolen German truck to the front gate where they present forged papers demanding the transfer of Felix to the central hospital. When things go wrong and the doctor refuses to release Felix because there’s no point in transporting a dying man, Mathilde must quietly accept it and take it all with a shrug, as though the keeping of Felix in his dying state in the hands of the Germans means nothing to her. It’s a quiet and emotionally wrenching scene as we can feel implied emotion in everything that follows, for if Mathilde were to show any of her real emotions, they would all die.
The film ends with Gerbier being taken out of service for a month after he’s captured once again and barely escapes with the help of Mathilde in a fantastically cruel bit where the German officers offer their captives the chance to save themselves (maybe) by running down a shooting range. Grazed by a couple of bullets, Gerbier is left alone in a remote house with only the works of Luc Jardie to keep him company, and when he’s finally rescued from his weeks’ long isolation, he’s greeted with the news that Mathilde has been captured. She’s also given up her daughter’s name and location because of her carrying of the photo. Hard decisions must be made in hard realities.
Melville fought in the Resistance during the war, and he took the novel by Joseph Kessel as a way to make his own stylized tragedy of the time period, before the Resistance really grew in late 1943. It’s about the emotional truth of the hard life they had to live, and the tragic ends that met most of those that fought it. It was initially dismissed by French critics (not receiving an American theatrical release until 2006) mostly because they saw Melville’s gangster pictures in this movie about the Resistance. It’s pretty obviously an unfair comparison to make. This isn’t a gangster picture at all, but there are similarities between the kind of life and codes that Melville’s gangster have to live by and the way his Resistance fighters have to live. It’d be like saying Scorsese made a gangster movie of The Age of Innocence. There are similarities in how groups treat outsiders and insiders, but it’s still firmly a film about upper class New York aristocrats.
Melville made a film in tribute to those he knew, to their emotional reality, and to the hard costs of the fight. It’s also the most perfect combination of his style and subject matter. It is the pinnacle of his career.