Best known for gangsters & existential hitmen, French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville’s two films set during the WWII occupation took almost four decades before opening Stateside. His revelatory Resistence pic, ARMY OF SHADOWS/’69, got more attention, but this adaptation of Béatrix Beck’s Goncourt-winning novel is equally successful. It’s a clear-eyed look at a charming, handsome young priest who can’t help but win the hearts & souls of the town’s lonely women. He’s chaste with his spiritual charges, but in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s hands, he also seems fully aware of the devastating physical effect he’s making in his well-cut priestly cassock. The main relationship develops between Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva’s secretarial teacher who comes to mock the man after reluctantly baptizing her daughter (just to be safe), but stays the course for intellectual discussion, surging religious belief & displaced sexual yearnings. Melville brings a startling technique to the film, ably abetted by Henri Dacaë’s rich b&w lensing, but it’s his view of how life goes on amid war’s circumstance that gives this film its special flavor. (*CORRECTION-11/04/14: A third WWII occupation story from Melville, his recently restored debut pic, SILENCE OF THE SEA/’49, about a German officer with a love of French culture billeted in a country home.)
DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Most of those Deleted Scenes on your DVD Extras got chopped for darn good reasons, but this new Criterion edition has a shocking, and shockingly good, outtake that sees Belmondo’s priest offering tacit approval for an upcoming hit by the local Resistance. It certainly adds complexity to his character, perhaps too much. Melville would return to this theme, brilliantly, terrifyingly, and to the suggested moral conundrum in ARMY OF SHADOWS.