Blu-Ray Review: ARMY OF SHADOWS

The Criterion Collection's new Blu-Ray of Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (1969) is a straight-forward upgrade of the company's 2007 DVD. The disc features a great high-def transfer, superior sound, and no new extras.

Army of Shadows, which is based on Joseph's Kessel's novel of the same name, presents the epic story of a group of French resistance fighters during the German occupation in 1942. At the center of the story is Phillipe Gebrier (Lino Ventura), a civil engineer who organizes a small group of fighters, including: Jean Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Mathilde (Simone Signoret), and Felix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet). The intellectual leader of the Resistance is a shadowy figure named Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) whose words inspire the group. Gebrier's escape from a concentration camp begins a noble but ultimately doomed journey to free his country.


Army of Shadows is a precisely directed mix of action, adventure, drama, and intrigue. The film has Melville's signature icy and morose tone, but the film also has a deep emotional power. Army of Shadows is a tragic and moving story about people fighting for their lives, pushing forward in the face of daunting odds. The only task more difficult than defeating the occupying forces is maintaining dignity and solitary.

Much of the film's dramatic impact comes from what is implied as opposed to what is said or shown. Silence is used to devastating effect, leaving the actors' to communicate the fear, dread, and tension of the events through their facial expression. Sometimes the film's strategy of implication was as much a function of budget as it was a function of aesthetics. Although Melville took great care in hiding the seams in the production, he obviously wasn't too concerned. How else to explain the use of rickety airplane models?

Criterion's Army of Shadows Blu-Ray is a reasonable compromise between presentation quality and economic reality. Two French language audio tracks are provided: one is uncompressed mono and the other is in DTS-HD Master Audio. In comparison, the DVD contains compressed mono and Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 soundtracks. English subtitles are provided.

Both the 2007 DVD and the new region-coded Blu-Ray were sourced from a digital restoration made in 2004. The dual-layer Blu-Ray  contains over 4 hours of content. The video file for the 2 hour and 20 minute film takes up close to 30 gb; the rest of the content takes up 18 gb. A major consequence of the decision to squeeze all of this materials on a single disc is that the bitrate for the MPEG-4 AVC encoded feature averages out to 21mpbs. This is low compared to many of the recent Criterion Blu-Rays, which stream at anywhere from 30-35 mpbs. Although the image quality is beautiful and far better than anything a dual-layer DVD could deliver, one can't help but wonder if more detail could have been squeezed out of the feature. 

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