Grade: A-

It may have been made nearly four decades ago, but Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows” is a new film as far as America is concerned, never having been released here until now. As it turns out, it was worth the wait. This austere yet probing portrait of the French resistance against German occupation in Lyons in the waning days of World War II, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel (and the director’s own experience in the movement) is beautifully made and thoroughly engrossing.

It’s also nothing like you might expect. There are no large-scale operations to derail trains, no nail-biting countdowns for explosive charges to detonate, no surreptitious entries into the inner sanctums of Nazi power. There is, to be sure, an attempt to spring a captured compatriot from prison by having several members pose as a German ambulance team with orders to transfer him, but though it’s tautly staged and generates enormous tension (as does another sequence, in which a bunch of unfortunate suspects are given a few moments to escape execution by fleeing a firing squad), neither sequence is conventionally “heroic” in the Hollywood sense, and in the first instance the effort proves futile. Instead Melville draws on his cinematic background in making gangster movies, as well his personal experience in the resistance, to portray the clique of partisans essentially in terms of their relationships with one another, emphasizing the caution they have to exhibit not only toward the outside world but within the group, where friends can sometimes become turncoats. Indeed, one grim sequence depicts the removal of a traitor, a scene in which Melville conveys how hard it is to kill a man far more effectively–and wrenchingly–than Hitchcock did in “Torn Curtain.” And elsewhere the resistance cell has to dispose of one of its most respected members, who unfortunately has been “turned” by blackmail. The effect emphasizes the oppressively closed, almost hermetic atmosphere in which the group must operate.

Of course, the film still needs a center, and it’s provided by Lino Ventura as high-ranking resistance figure Philippe Gerbier, whom we first meet as a prisoner being transported to a camp, where the first long sequence–involving his interaction with others jailed there, some supportive but others quislings–is set. When he’s taken for interrogation to town, Philippe escapes and returns to his resistance work. In the course of it others appear, including Simone Signoret as Mathilde, a cooly efficient lieutenant, Jean-Pierre Cassel as Francois, a flamboyant courier and Jean-Marie Robain as an eccentric nobleman with a private army of his own. General De Gaulle even makes a brief appearance during a secretive trip that Gerbier makes to blitz-threatened London. There are setbacks, as when Gerbier is again taken into custody and faces execution, or when one of his closest associates is captured and tortured, Francois sacrifices himself to save him, and Mathilde tries desperately to rescue him. The overall effect is a mixture of courage, fear, panic and serene confidence, a juxtaposition of opposites resulting in a perpetual feeling of unease meticulously captured by the director, his cast, cinematographer Pierre Lhomme and editor Francoise Bonnot. And the film looks pristine, thanks to a superb restoration job completed in 2004.

“Army of Shadows” isn’t a typical war film, but it is a typical Melville film–darkly elegant, stylistically refined, emotionally restrained but powerful in its overall impact. It may be nearly forty years old, but it feels fresher and more exciting than almost any other film out there.