Surprise, surprise, the best film I've seen in a theater this year - hell, maybe this decade - isn't American. And it isn't new. Point in fact, it's making it's US premiere a shocking thirty-seven years after it was first produced.

I speak of Army of Shadows [L'Armée des Ombres], the 11th of the 13 films made by Jean- Pierre Melville, who might well be the most underappreciated director in history. Perhaps that is an overstatement. Perhaps he is only underappreciated in this country. But it is true that nearly half of his canon is unavailable in this country, and this is only the fourth of his films to have any sort of reasonable exposure (The others are Bob le Flambeur (1956), Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), all released in this decade by Rialto and available on Criterion DVD).

Army of Shadows is perhaps the greatest of the four Melville films I am familiar with, although the others are certainly well worth seeing. It is not autobiographical in any sense, but it is probably the most personal of Melville's late films, telling the story of a cell of Resistance fighters in Vichy France (Melville was a Resistance member). That said, this is not an adventure film, or a rousingly patriotic historical drama. This is the study of men (and one particularly unforgettable woman) who stand ready to die at any moment for a cause, and the process of a mind that has resolved itself to its own death. "Army of shadows" refers to the covert nature of the Resistance fighters, but it could just as easily refer to the lives of its members: drained, dark, empty of content and vibrant only as a symbol. It is not a film of inhumanity; it is a film of accepted fatalism.

The story largely revolves around Philippe Gerbier, played by Lino Ventura, an actor with whom I am sadly unfamiliar. Ventura is an appealingly craggy actor (he was fifty at the time), and he invests Gerbier with a sense of beaten-down worldliness simply by being there. Indeed, the cast as a whole is flawless, although I would particularly hold out Paul Meurisse, as the cell's mentor, and Simone Signoret (the only performer I've seen elsewhere, in the best work I've seen her do) as their most fearless and capable member. There is no plot, as such, more a series of missions, but there is a climax, and it is impeccably performed by Meurisse and Signoret, who demonstrate the indescribable effect that a simply look can have, when wielded by the proper actor.

The film feels surprising like one of Melville's caper films, in that he is less concerned with drawing the audience into events than observe them, and observe the men and women performing them. This lends a somewhat clinical feeling to the film, especially given its cold visual scheme (blues and greys and blacks, and in this I was chiefly reminded of the resolutely colorless Le Samouraï). Yet it is unimaginable that someone could consider this a weakness - I maintain that clinical detachment is at the very heart of how these characters view the world. I wish there was some way I could communicate in words the effect of a shot, perhaps two-thirds through the film, in which Gerbier stands at the edge of a dark hallway, wondering whether to run from Nazi guns or stand his ground; but even if my memory allowed me to precisely describe every element of the frame, I could still not get at how minimalist and tense the image is, nor how this so clearly evokes the helplessness of running in the face of inevitable death. Nor could I describe the cumulative effect of the countless night scenes, in which men appear as black forms against an inky blue sky.

Since I am mentioning the cinematography, I will add that the first shot - an endless column of Nazi soldiers marching in front of the Arc de Triomphe - is as arresting an image as I have ever seen in the cinema. I do not wish to begin a laundry list of scenes and shots that had a pronounced effect on me, both because it would be boring to read and it would deprive you of the right to see them for the first time untainted.

In retrospect, I find myself thinking of Casablanca. That film presented the Resistance as a glorious adventure, peopled by godlike men of morality and resolve. In Melville's film, the Resistance is simply a long wait for death, with the hope that you can do as much as possible before that moment. Yet somehow, Army of Shadows feels much more honorable to the men and women who died. It presents them not as superhuman, but as merely human, soldiers who did what had to be done, in full knowledge of the cost, because no-one else would do it.