The great French Director Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï, Bob le Flambeur) certainly knew whereof he spoke when he brought to the cinema this story of the French Resistance. Melville (and co-writer Joseph Kessel ) were members of that movement. And it certainly shows in the carefully crafted, and detailed portrait of that WWII movement. When the film opens in October of 1942, France is under Vichy rule. We see a prison transport van in the rain and mud taking someone to be interred in a prison camp originally to house German POW’s. That was not to be. 41-year old civil engineer Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) has been rounded up for no particular reason, other than that the regime feels he is a threat to their ‘authority’. The prison warden interviews Gerbier at his intake and marks him down as a prisoner to ‘watch’. As Gerbier hatches a plan with a communist POW to escape, he is suddenly transferred to a more secure facility, tightly maintained by the Gestapo. Still, before they are locked up, he and another transferree overpower a German guard (Gerbier stabs him in the neck) and they escape in a daring and tense moment.
The scene shifts to a later time and Paul Dounar (Vincent Henry) is waiting for an assignation, when he’s pulled in to a car by people who are ostensibly Vichy police. It turns out that Gerbier has picked him up and plans to eliminate him as a traitor to their cell. The scene of his assassination is an example of the inner workings of the resistance, having to mete out swift justice to protect the movement.
Later, Gerbier has been assigned to arrange the transport of the “big boss” to London – there to plead for support, both in money and in weaponry. A submarine surfaces in the darkness as the “big boss” is rowed out to the submarine. Jean Francois Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassell) is at the oars, and thinks
It’s odd to think that the big boss is the same size as everyone else. In this little boat, the tip and the base of the pyramid meet. Strange mathematics.
One of the many elegant and thoughtful moments in the film.
In London, the members of the cell are decorated by Degaulle and attend a showing of “Gone With the Wind“. One of them comments that
“For the French, the war will be over when they can see that great film”
As word comes that one of their members has been arrested by the Gestapo back in Paris, Gerbier parachutes back home (his first ever experience with sky jumping). The rest of the film is the formulation and execution of the plan for a daring rescue. This film is a classic of the genre and needs to be seen by anyone who fancies themselves devotees of the WWII film in the European theater.