From its extraordinary opening shot of the Wehrmacht goose-stepping down the Champs-Elysées, Jean-Pierre Melville's portrayal of French Resistance fighters, first seen in 1969, grips tighter than a Gestapo handcuff. Melville relies less on action than a slow accumulation of suspense and a morbid concentration on the importance of security: the scene in which a Resistance unit must decide on the quietest way of executing a traitor is almost too tense to bear.
Lino Ventura, as a fugitive Resistance leader, has the brooding melancholy of a Mafia enforcer, an impression compounded by the ubiquity of long trenchcoats, wide-brimmed hats and black Citroëns that look like hearses. The film shows us heroism, but heroism so muted and doom-laden that it seems closer to a shrugging acceptance of one's fate.
Melville, a master of understatement, was also a Resistance man himself, and never lets us forget the reality of torture and death that shadowed this underground "army". Less celebrated than his 1967 Le Samouraï, but in its noirish compositions and fatalistic cool it is at least its equal.Reuse content