by Benjamin B
France, 1943. A German soldier peers into a holding cell. Seven French prisoners in leg irons are spread out across the large space. One of them, Gerbier (Lino Ventura), fishes out a pack of cigarettes and throws it to his neighbor. Each man in turn takes out a cigarette, and throws the pack, then a lighter, to the next man. One man puts the cigarette behind his ear, saying, “I’ll keep it for later.” The sixth man takes out a cigarette, looks at Gerbier, and crumples the pack: there are none left for Gerbier. The camera dollies in slowly on each man, lost in his own thoughts. Through the door, a soldier says something in German. Gerbier translates, “He says to hurry up, because they’re coming to take us and he doesn’t want any trouble.” The man takes his cigarette from his ear and retorts, “One has the troubles one can.”
The scene is from Army of Shadows (L’armee des ombres). With a few sober shots and sparse dialogue, director Jean-Pierre Melville takes the cliche of the condemned man’s last cigarette and creates a scene of powerful emotion. Based on Joseph Kessel’s book about his work with the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France, Army of Shadows is a series of vignettes that include a few dramatic moments, but the story mostly focuses on the every-day work of the Resistance: moving a radio transmitter, hiding wanted men, arranging parachute drops, and swiftly reorganizing when members are captured.
Released in the United States for the first time last year, Army of Shadows topped many critics’ lists of the best pictures of 2006 — an extraordinary achievement for a 37-year-old film that was a critical and commercial flop when it opened in France in 1969.
Melville, who died in 1973 at the age of 56, was a maverick who toiled on low-budget films outside of the mainstream. He is considered by many to be the godfather of the Nouvelle Vague, and was among the first to shoot on location. His most celebrated films include Le Samourai and Le Circle Rouge, but Army of Shadows, which is closely related to his own wartime experiences, is his most personal picture.
Following a restoration of the film that was supervised by its director of photography, Pierre Lhomme, AFC, Army of Shadows was theatrically released by Rialto Pictures in 2006. The Criterion Collection recently released a DVD of the film that includes rare French television interviews with Melville, interviews with Lhomme and editor Francoise Bonnot, and an excellent documentary about the liberation of Paris in 1944.
Over the course of his career, Lhomme, now a vigorous 77 years old, collaborated with a host of influential directors, including Chris Marker, Robert Bresson, Jean Eustache, Dusan Makavejev, Patrice Chereau, Marguerite Duras and Bertrand Blier. His credits include Le Joli Mai, The King of Hearts, The Mother and the Whore, Camille Claudel and Cyrano de Bergerac. He served as the first president of the AFC.
The cinematographer re-calls meeting Melville to discuss Army of Shadows in 1968, when Lhomme was in his late 30s. “I was surprised when he called me, given the small number of films I’d made,” he says. “He told me to meet him in a small, provincial railway station near his home. When I arrived, the station square was deserted except for a white Camaro. I said to myself, ‘That’s Melville.’ I approached the car, and out came a man wearing a Stetson hat and Ray-Ban sunglasses. He opened the door and said, ‘Monsieur Lhomme, climb in.’ We zoom off, and he immediately starts talking cinema. He had seen the few films I’d made and told me what he liked about my work, and he spoke about the directors he liked: William Wyler, Howard Hawks and Robert Wise. That was how it began.”
The subsequent shoot took 14 weeks, “back when we only worked eight hours a day,” and Lhomme notes this was a tight schedule for a 140-minute feature.
He reveals that Melville wanted to shoot the picture in black-and-white, but the financiers mandated color. The filmmakers subsequently strove for images that were as desaturated as possible, leaning toward the blue tones. “Melville hated warm colors, so every effort was made to avoid them, and bright colors in general,” says Lhomme. In addition, a thin orange-yellow wash of paint was sometimes added to the set walls and later timed out by adding blue; this allowed the filmmakers to achieve paler skin tones while keeping the walls gray.
The restoration of Army of Shadows was initiated by Studio Canal with assistance from the CNC, the French National Center for Cinema. Lhomme was involved in the timing of the restored print and the digital master, working with restoration supervisor Ronald Boullet and color timer Raymond Terrentin at Eclair Laboratories. (Beatrice Valbin of Studio Canal shepherded the project from start to finish.) When asked whether the restored version matches the original 1969 print, Lhomme replies with a laugh, “I don’t remember what the original print looked like anymore!” The truth underlying his jocular response is that because the prints have faded, there is no absolute reference for the look of the timed print.
During production, Lhomme shot a reference shot, called a “Lily” in France, with a small grayscale for each setup. He kept a few frames of the negative of these Lilys and stuck them to the appropriate pages of his script. Prints from these Lilys served as a reminder of what was on the negative, and as a starting place for timing.
Lhomme notes that the digital-intermediate (DI) process allowed him to create a restored negative that is perhaps more faithful to Melville’s vision than the original print was, in that he was able to further desaturate the images and increase the blue tonalities. The DVD might be even more faithful, he continues, because it was a further refinement of the DI created for the new “digital” negative. “By doing the restoration of this film, I restored my own memories — no joke,” says Lhomme. “To restore is to discover, and 35 years [after I shot this film], I rediscovered it on the big screen and saw its extraordinary cinematic qualities.”
The principal camera Lhomme used on Army of Shadows was a 35mm Mitchell with an external parallax viewfinder. “I started my career with this camera, and it’s tough for a first assistant,” he remarks. “The viewfinder swivels with change of focus, so you need an entente cordiale between the first assistant and the operator.” The production also used a lighter but noisier Cameflex, “which was the jewel we would never part with,” he adds. The lenses used were a T4 Angenieux zoom and Cooke primes. The film stocks were Kodak 5251, with an EI of 50, and the then-new 5254, with a “fast” EI of 100. Lhomme notes that these slow stocks made it difficult to use the zoom indoors.
Army of Shadows begins with its most spectacular scene: German soldiers parading toward the camera with the Arc de Triomphe behind them. Obtaining permission to shoot in front of an iconic Parisian monument was a coup for Melville, and in a later interview he called it “perhaps the most expensive shot in the history French cinema.” According to Lhomme, the Germans were played by dancers who had spent many hours practicing military marches.
In an interview on the Criterion DVD, editor Bonnot recalls that Melville was uncertain about where to place the marching scene, and the shot was constantly moved back and forth from the beginning to the end of the movie. When the picture was released in Paris, Melville had one last change of heart. Bonnot recalls, “We took a splicer and went to all six of the theaters where the film was showing, and we actually cut the scene from the end and moved it to the beginning!” The first audiences that day saw the shot at the end of the movie, she adds.
The second shot in the film is a rainy exterior of a police van that is transporting the main character, Gerbier, to a prison camp. One of Melville’s trademark zooms singles out the van in the landscape. Lhomme recalls telling Melville that the raindrops from the rain machine in the foreground would disappear out of focus at the long end of the zoom, and the director therefore decided the scene should be shot without rain. He then set up a “rain shot” in front of a black background, which was optically combined with the zoom shot in the lab. The resulting scene works, although the trickery is visible to careful viewers. Lhomme notes that Melville loved to employ such tricks, which he had learned on his low-budget films.
Broadly speaking, the style of Army of Shadows can be seen as a blend of classical cinema and Nouvelle Vague, a mixture that reflects, in part, the difference in sensibilities of the director and his slightly younger cinematographer. Steeped in documentaries and the location photography of the Nouvelle Vague, Lhomme was unhappy with the lack of realism in many of Melville’s “old school” approaches. In an interview on the DVD, Lhomme recalls, “I had to stand up for my ideas of lighting, and it was a kind of game we had. Melville once said to me, ‘Look at Hitchcock! His films are full of cardboard sets, and no one cares.’ And I answered him, ‘But I care.'”
The sequence in the prison camp at the beginning of Army of Shadows illustrates this stylistic duality. Like most of the production’s interiors, Gerbier’s meeting with the camp commander was shot on a soundstage. Windows give out to painted background panels, and the modulated shadows come from units hung above the set, creating a classical, almost theatrical look that still respects the onscreen light source. When Gerbier steps outside the office, the shot is a dusk exterior, and an elegant dolly move follows him as he is taken to his quarters by two guards. “I love those end-of-day scenes,” says Lhomme. “We started to shoot as soon as the light was right, and we had to work quickly with meticulous planning before-hand. The lighting axis had been chosen and set up, and the dolly tracks had been laid. In such cases, you have to be well prepared, and everyone has to know what he has to do. I was very lucky we had gray weather, otherwise there would have been no way to do it.”
Lhomme recalls another moment of the shoot, when the crew went on location in Marseille to shoot the reunion of two key characters (played Paul Crauchet and Jean-Pierre Cassel) in a bar. Melville left as the crew finished up in the location, and then Lhomme went outside to set up for the final night exterior of the two walking in the street. Suddenly the Camaro drove up, and Melville asked Lhomme to hop in. “We drove to a deserted section of Marseille, and Melville said, ‘I made a mistake. This is where we should shoot.'” Lhomme noted that it was 1 a.m., and the crew would need another half-day to switch locations. “Melville said, ‘I won’t get any more time. We’re already two days late. But I have a photographer friend here, and I’ll ask him to photograph this location, and we’ll shoot [the action] onstage in Paris.'” In the end, Lhomme remembers, the actors walked in front of giant blowups of the photos — Melville’s primitive version of today’s TransLites. Onscreen, the scene has a credible though abstract quality.
One of the best-known sequences in Army of Shadows takes place 30 minutes in, when Gerbier has to oversee the execution of a traitor, Dounat. The young traitor is picked up in a square by Felix, a Resistance member posing as a policeman, and taken by car to a seaside house. In the house, the shades are drawn, and Gerbier, Felix and another colleague, Claude, debate how to kill the whimpering boy. Clearly new at this, they end up strangling him with an improvised garrote, an ordeal that marks their rite of passage into the Resistance.
The emotional impact of the execution sequence comes in great part from its rhythm and length. Melville takes the time to show each beat of hesitation, decision and fumbling as the Resistance members carry out their first execution. Throughout the picture, many scenes play out in lengthy wide shots with a minimum of dialogue, allowing the viewer to become immersed in the action. As Lhomme puts it on the DVD, “As an audience member, you always have time to think, even to ask yourself what you would do in that situation. What’s so strong about Melville’s mise en scene, about his way of storytelling, is that the audience is not violated. It’s not manipulative cinema.”
The 11-minute execution sequence begins with a simple day exterior, as Felix meets with the traitor and takes him to the car. Lhomme remembers providing a little fill for the scene with a white sheet. To the cinematographer’s chagrin, the car ride was shot on a soundstage with classic rear-screen projection. Melville orchestrated a dolly move alongside the car. “It’s the opposite of what I would have done, and I was really unhappy,” says Lhomme. “Since the end of the Fifties, we had been shooting car scenes in real cars on location, just as we had stopped shooting cars without windshields. But Melville loved rear-screen.” Lhomme notes that the basic lighting unit for this scene was a quartz lamp with ordinary tracing paper diffusion, and often a V4 CTB gel to offset the warm tone of the paper. For close-ups, he was forced to put Mitchell diffusion in front of the lens so “the close-ups wouldn’t look sharper than the wide shots.”
When the car stops, the film shifts to a day exterior, which was shot on location in Marseille. Melville films the traitor being walked to the safe house in one economical shot that combines zoom, pan and crane moves to follow the trio down an alley. “You don’t really notice the moves because they’re well done,” says Lhomme. “The camera operator, Philippe Brun, was one of the best.”
The action inside the house was shot on a soundstage, and the set was a modest, nondescript space. The scene begins with dark, moody day interiors, with light seeping in from shuttered windows. Then, in a wide-angle one-shot scene, the men close the curtains and turn on an overhead bulb, changing the setting to a night-like interior. With the slow film stocks of the time, says Lhomme, “I could not light whimsically. I had an overall indirect light and added punctual strokes to underline the light sources. In fact, I was trying to apply to the soundstage what I had learned on location. It must have been tough doing all those lighting changes in one shot.”
All of the light sources had to come from walkways above the set, because Melville’s propensity for wide shots made it impossible to place lights on the floor. “When the lighting is above, it follows that the top of the set is more lit than the bottom, so you often have to graduate the top of the set,” says the cinematographer. “Some of the great art directors would ask if I wanted them to graduate the top of the set, and I always answered, ‘Of course.’ Or you can use grad filters on the camera. Nowadays it’s easy to do that in the DI.”
Once the curtains are drawn, the lighting underlines the hard shadow line of the circular shade above the bare bulb. Part of the dark area, Lhomme notes, was hiding the hard shadow of the “giraffe” microphone boom above the set. The garroting of the traitor happens mostly offscreen; instead, we see tight shots of the three executioners, emphasizing their transformation. The action is lit starkly from above with almost no fill. “I was using a maximum of contrast,” says Lhomme. “I didn’t want to lose Felix’s eyes, but I put them in as much darkness as possible. There’s a minimum of fill, which I adjusted by eye; I probably used a piece of coarse drawing paper fixed on a French flag with three clothespins. Also, there’s a small light on Gerbier’s eyes, so as not to lose his [expression].”
The scene returns to a wide shot as the men lay the body down and cover it with a blanket. The light is turned out, and the screen is almost entirely black as the camera follows Gerbier to the window. With a laugh, Lhomme observes that the shot is “magnificently underexposed! On the DVD I retimed it a little bit, but in projection there was almost nothing. It’s very rare to have a director who loves nocturnal ambience, who is not afraid of the dark, who is not afraid to guess rather than see. Melville pushed me toward darkness until this shot, where I blew it. I was very unhappy and wanted to redo the shot. I said, ‘Jean-Pierre, it doesn’t work, you really can’t see anything,’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry, it will work once we put in the music.’ And it did! The shot could be black leader, but Luc Demarsan’s magnificent music fills it in.”
As Gerbier peers out the window, Melville places the camera in a new vantage point: outside pointing in, framing a stunning shot with dark, soft, blue lighting that has a contemporary feel. “This shot marks the passage of time — we started in daylight and carried on through penumbra, towards night,” says Lhomme. The shot is also unusual for its lack of depth of field, highlighting Gerbier’s isolation as he ponders his deed.
“You know, the everyday production of Army of Shadows was so stressful and rushed that I finished shooting without knowing I had worked on a great film,” concludes Lhomme. “Every time I see this film, I’m astounded. What is impressive and rare is the use of durations that allow for the intelligence and the sensitivity of the audience. Melville’s mise en scene is so rigorous and sober. He had a respect for the audience that is often lacking today.”
American Cinematographer, July 2007 pp. 62-70