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Studios ramp up Blu-ray releases

John DeFore

It's a bounteous month for Blu-ray editions of back-catalog movies, including titles from the aughts that have new-release tie-ins ("Lost in Translation" linked to Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere"; "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" tied to Michel Gondry's "Green Hornet"), revered older films including "Raging Bull," crowd-pleasers "Broadcast News" and "Dances With Wolves," and the unexpected arrival of two Sam Fuller cult gems, "Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss." Among this crowd, Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" might be the most unexpected.

That's not because Criterion, the company releasing it on Blu-ray this week, isn't devoted to the French auteur. In fact, they've put seven of his films on DVD. Instead, the question is why they chose this one as the first to go Blu.

Melville's "Le Samouraï," boasting Alain Delon's hit-man cool, would seem to have more commercial appeal. His "Bob le Flambeur," remade years later as Neil Jordan's "The Good Thief," has a down-at-the-heels panache that won the director many admirers on DVD. And "Les Enfants Terribles" offers the added arthouse clout of Jean Cocteau penning the source material.

Where his better-known films might find an artful route through genres that encourage our vicarious embrace of misdeeds, "Army of Shadows" is a war film that, thanks to Melville's personal history, is so disdainful of clichéd heroism it barely fits into the genre.

Having fought with the French Resistance in World War II and been bitterly disappointed that so few of his countrymen joined the cause, Melville sees his heroes here through an uncommon lens.

In other war yarns, the French freedom fighter is wily and determined; here, he is an outcast who can count on nothing — not even his own instinct for self-preservation.

As Philippe, a midlevel leader of the movement, Lino Ventura projects a chilly demeanor that transforms tales of daring — it's easy to imagine his exploits being recast in the "Great Escape" mold — into something far starker, offering little if any opportunity for vicarious thrills. His inexpressive face and businesslike mien make him puzzling both for us and for the men who imprison him early in the film, wondering whether he'll respond best to "the carrot" or "the stick."

Interrogators don't get time to answer that question, as Philippe has quickly escaped. Rather than build the film around one elaborate prison break, Melville (adapting a novel by Joseph Kessel) offers pursuit, capture and escape as a way of life: Most of Philippe's comrades are caught at one point or another, leaving their fellows to worry about which can be rescued, which will break under interrogation and which will take honorable refuge in a cyanide capsule.

Plenty happens in the film, but "Army" feels more like a philosophical exploration than an action flick. Melville's compositions are lonesome, his pace unhurried, and he rarely milks dramatic sequences in a conventional way. Critical plot developments go unremarked in the dialogue; the camera accepts them matter-of-factly and proceeds, as if it were another of the stoic men on screen.

Melville might not have had much of a budget — with its model airplanes and obvious mattes, "Army" looks a bit like a TV miniseries — but he can make the most of a small prop. As in "Miller's Crossing," a man's hat serves as an important totem here, just as a pair of spectacles can reinstate some degree of dignity to a soldier in hiding.

For fighters whose larger cause seems distant, these personal items are more important than the national icons (like the Arc de Triomphe) that we might expect them to revere. France might owe its survival to these "shadows," but most of Melville's subjects will be too transformed to appreciate that gratitude once it arrives.