We were deeply impressed -- as was everybody in the audience at Film Forum last night -- by Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 docu-thriller Army of Shadows ("L'armée des ombres"), about the French Résistance in its most difficult years, 1942-43. It is gripping for many reasons: the tense, controlled acting; the inherent drama of the story itself, based on Résistance memoirs by the pilot, Résistance fighter and author Joseph Kessel; and most especially for the mastery of tension by director Melville, himself a Résistance veteran who has added details from his own memories (and cinematographic cunning) to Kessel's story.
The movie is fiction, in that it compresses many real episodes and their protagonists into a few memorable characters. (For how he did it, and what proportion is fictional and how much absolutely authentic, see the 1971 interview of Melville by Rui Nogueira.) The central figure, 44-year old civil engineer and ranking Résistance commander Philippe Gerbier, played by Lino Ventura (a former champion wrestler, Ventura had previously been cast by Melville as a bad guy), is a composite of (according to Melville) 7 or 8 real people who really did those amazingly daring things. I don't know who the Simone Signoret character, Mathilde, is based on, but she's wonderfully brave, determined and tragic. But the figure who impressed me most deeply was Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), who is based in very large part on the historical Jean Moulin, put in charge of the Résistance by De Gaulle himself and charged with uniting its various factions. But Melville seems to have had someone else in mind also when he constructed the character. The real Moulin was a rather handsome professional politician, once France's youngest prefect. The fictional "Jardie" is a small, balding, and unhandsome intellectual (we see his several books on theoretical mathematics), supremely brainy as well as supremely cool and courageous, acting with moral clarity in some very complex dilemmas.
It is a kind of heroism seldom celebrated in American action films. But in the director's better-known gangster movies you can find these same quiet, manly virtues, which he learned the hard way. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, "Melville" was his nom-de guerre in the résistance.
Jean-Pierre Melville filmography
Bio of Jean Moulin in English
Dossier : "De Gaulle et Jean Moulin" Biographie par Christine Levisse-Touzé (in French). This has more complete information plus photos of Moulin.
NYT review of "Army of Shadows"