Try to imagine what it would have been like if Robert Bresson had directed Munich.

If you can manage that, you’ll have a pretty good grasp of what Army of Shadows is like. It’s an nail-bitingly intense (I can testify from experience–a couple of ragged nails here) spy thriller about the French resistance to the Nazis in 1942 and 1943. And boy is it bleak. In fact, by the end of the film I was wondering if these freedom fighters had done more damage to each other than they had to the Nazis, and yet you can’t help but stand in awe of their dedication, courage, and sacrifice.

And it has the ring of truth. Jean-Pierre Melville, the director, had some experience with the resistance, and there is an exciting realism to the tension, the danger, and the miserable places where the agents in this network must meet and hide. The moral dilemmas they face… the bullets they must fire merely because of a dangerous hunch… the whimpering appeals for mercy from the villains they capture… it forces viewers into life-and-death situations so intense that I was reminded of Miller’s Crossing and The Godfather. This film belongs on lists of the best films about World War 2, even though it feels more like a gangster flick than a war movie.

I would be very surprised to learn that Spielberg had not seen this before making Munich. There are scenes, and even characters, that bear strong resemblances to scenes and characters in this film.

I almost wrote that Army of Shadows is filmed in black-and-white, but then I began to remember traces of color. Suffice it to say that, from its opening frames, the use of color and shadow in the film amplifies the bleakness, the sense of doom that engulfs the bold endeavors of these agents. (It didn’t help matters that I saw it in a dusty old arthouse theater today that was full of big ugly moths, and the bugs kept flying in front of the projector, giving the impression of a horror movie as the characters were frequently buffeted by massive fluttering phantoms.)

And the lead actor, Lino Ventura, is extraordinary. He looks like Peter Sellers, with a hint of Elvis Costello, and the slow-burn intensity of Robert DeNiro in Ronin. He’s not a macho hero… in fact, the Sellers resemblance really became strong whenever he was challenged to do something bold or violent. In spite of the grim circumstances, his first parachute jump–a solo jump from a military plane at night–is quite comical.

Having only read the local film summary, I know next to nothing about Melville, and I’m anxious to learn more and see more. Just as I felt I’d stumbled onto a secret reservoir of ideas and inspiration for Spielberg and Lucas when I started watching early Miyazaki cartoons, I swear that Spielberg’s a Melville fan… or at least a fan of this film. But watch out… Munich is postively cheery compared to Army of Shadows.

At this point, I think it’s likely this will be in my year-end Top Ten.

Note to self: Look up Jean-Pierre Cassel. Is he Vincent Cassel’s father? He sure looks like him…