National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

DVD Picks & Passes

BY Steven D. Greydanus

May 27- June 2, 2007 Issue | Posted 5/22/07 at 10:00 AM


Army of Shadows (1969)  - PICK

The Third Man (1949)  - PICK

New from the Criterion Collection are a pair of noirish, downbeat WWII-era films — one a rediscovered art-house masterpiece, the other a long-celebrated classic thriller.

Though utterly different, both have been considered among the best films ever made. And either would make fine fare for Memorial Day weekend.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows topped many critics’ best-of-2006 lists, despite being nearly 40 years old. According to Roger Ebert, the film fared poorly with some Parisian critics who viewed it as “Gaullist.” It was never released in the United States. Original cinematographer Pierre Lhomme supervised the restoration of the film, which film finally came to American screens last year.

Based on Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel of the same name, Army of Shadows is a bleak journey into the lonely and desperate world of the French underground resistance. Resistance members work in numbing isolation, for the most part not knowing the identities of their anonymous allies.

Melville brings his own resistance experience to the story of an impassive civil engineer named Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), who leads a small resistance cell based in Lyon and Paris. A striking opening shot of German soldiers marching up the Champs-Elysées in front of the Arc de Triomphe establishes what is at stake — but there is no heroic romanticism in this chilly reverie about fear, necessity and the virtual absence of hope.

Based on the Graham Greene novel and adapted for the screen by Greene himself Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man is a thriller mired in the muddle and uncertainty of post-war Europe. Set in a bombed-out and quartered Vienna, the film drops a naïve American author of pulp novels and Westerns named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) into what seems like a pulp-novel plot: How did Martin’s friend Harry Lime really die? Was it an accident or murder? Who was the mysterious third man at the scene?

But the optimistic moral clarity of Martin’s Westerns has no place in this dissolute, dissipated world of black-market opportunism and jaded ex--haustion.

Orson Welles appears in the last third of the film and is onscreen for less than 20 minutes, but his role defines the film. In an unforgettable scene atop a Ferris wheel, he delivers one of the cinema’s most famous — and cynical — speeches:

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

This new two-disc set, actually the second Criterion edition of the film, features an all-new restoration and numerous extras, including a pair of audio commentaries, a 2005 feature-length making-of documentary and a booklet of essays on the film.

Content advisory
Army of Shadows: Sporadic wartime violence, including a knifing, a strangulation and some shootings; off-screen torture; an assisted suicide/mercy killing; some suggestive language. Subtitles. Mature viewing. The Third Man: Brief violence; discussion of murder and racketeering; partial nudity in a cabaret scene. Teens and up.