I'm amazed I was able to see Jean-Pierre Melville's L'armée des ombres (Army of Shadows, 1969) (long story; suffice to say someone made a last-minute call and allowed me to take the thirty-minute drive in time to catch the very last screening of a weeklong commercial run) and even more amazed--considering that I've already seen it some five or more years ago--to find myself coming out of the theater fairly shaken.
It's a great film, not just because it's a great thriller but because it shows, in incredibly painstaking detail, the increasingly claustrophobic state of mind the film's heroes endure, the vast noose tightening gradually on their collective necks. The pressure on these handful of men and women is enormous--they carry out formidable organizational challenges (monitoring Nazi movements; organizing secret landings and parachute drops; getting downed Allied pilots out of France) under great difficulty and incredible danger (the repair of a faulty radio is a big issue--you can't just send it to a shop). And the slightest slip can be fatal; keeping a picture of your daughter in your wallet can have tremendous consequences. At the same time the Allies never give them enough guns to work with (though they're only too happy to provide the guerillas with more radio transmitters, as if talk was what's really needed (in a Melville film?)). Even the simple act of crossing the channel into England is an elaborate ordeal--the trip starts by rowboat in the dead of night and continues via submarine; the return is via a nighttime parachute drop, flown through anti-aircraft barrage.
Melville ratchets up the suspense with his elegantly spare camera style, unobstrusive yet in many ways adversarial to his characters' objectives and desires. Two men under arrest sit in a waiting room; the camera swings around from beside them to just above and behind the Nazi guard's head, as if measuring the distance between the two captives and freedom (or death). Resistance fighters hatch a dangerous plan to spirit a captured comrade away by disguising themselves as a nurse and her two officer escorts; when the plan fails the camera lingers on their faces, as if daring them to betray even the slightest hint of remorse (no dice; the nurse (a magnificent Simone Signoret) snaps out a brisk "Heil Hitler!" salute and turns away). A man and his fellow captives are led into a vast tunnel, with a machine gun at one end and a wall at the other (make it to that wall, and you win the dubious privilege of staying alive long enough to be included in the next batch of condemned); the camera follows the man's run, as if hoping to capture the moment when he drops dead.
Strangest of all is how closely Melville draws parallels between this group of brave conspirators and the taciturn gangsters he's famous for. A French Resistance fighter, apparently, struggles with much of the same challenges a criminal does--he must carry out activities while evading capture; when captured, he must make every effort to break out of prison. He must change cars while fleeing pursuit, be ruthless in eliminating stool pigeons, and--should the house next door suddenly turn out to be occupied by a family--carry out a murder in as quiet a fashion as possible.
Maybe the crucial difference is that a gangster is in it mainly for the profit; Resistance fighters are in it because they feel it's right (the most reward they get to enjoy is the aforementioned torturously hazardous trip across the channel for a medal and a brief shopping spree in London)--not much of a difference, but Melville hangs his entire picture on it. God forbid that they talk about their motives, or about why they do it (that's why the offer of more radios is such a funny joke), but the conviction gradually seeps into you, as you watch their determinedly inexpressive faces, that these are no ordinary men--or they used to be ordinary, but their ordeal has transformed them. This cat-and-mouse chase may seem like a game, but it's one they have played for far too long, and for far too high stakes; they're past the point where they can even dare think of stopping.