French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville, who died in 1973 at the age of 55, is best known for his perfectly taciturn gangster flicks — Bob le Flambeur, Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samourai — and for the way his tough guys in fedoras keep their moral calculus to themselves. That same existential aloneness shapes the lives of the men — and Simone Signoret, marvelously matronly as the one woman — who press forward, enveloped by danger, in Melville’s breathtaking Army of Shadows. The picture was made in 1969 and is only now being released in the U.S., in a beautiful restoration supervised by original cinematographer Pierre Lhomme.
This time, the subterfuge is on behalf of the French Resistance during World War II. (Melville, who himself served in the army and worked for the Resistance, based his screenplay on the authoritative novel of the same name by Joseph Kessel.) The great Joe Schmoe-faced former wrestler Lino Ventura stars as agent Philippe Gerbier, whose colleagues are so discreet that even brothers are unaware of each other’s anonymously heroic activities. In making a cinematic connection between the gangster moral code and that of the resolutely shadowy anti-Nazi network that stands so proud in modern French memory, the filmmaker creates the most meaningful atmosphere of exquisite suspense you’re likely to see at the movies this year. Or most years.