A French Resistance officer is marched into the Hôtel Majestic by his German captors and directed to a bench next to a fellow detainee. The two men have never met before, but in this moment their lives are clearly intertwined. Minutes pass and the clock hanging on the wall high above them ticks away like a bomb with an unknown detonation time. Down the hall, one of the Germans calls away their guard for a moment. Once out of an earshot, the Frenchman turns to his bench-mate with a knowing look, then turns back to face the opposite wall as he begins to lay out his plan in a low whisper:
"This is our chance. I'll get up to ask the guard something. You run through the two doors. This one here and the door to the street. Good luck."
The guard returns and the two prisoners sit in a silence marred only by the interminable ticking of the clock, pulsating away for what feels like an eternity. The camera starts to creep in a slow arc away from the bench. The Frenchman leans forward, as though to propel himself up out of his seat—but only a feint. He leans back again, and then, after one more eternal moment, rises and saunters towards the guard.
"Excuse me, sir. Could you spare a cigarette?"
The bomb blows—before the guard can so much as blink, his captive has stabbed him through the neck with his own knife while the other man darts from the scene, not to be seen again. Our protagonist, meanwhile, races outdoors and sprints down the deserted midnight street, ducking into a lit barber shop where he is greeted cooly by the proprietor.
"What do you want?"
A shave, he replies—never mind the hour. The barber complies, and renders his service in complete silence. As his client dons his coat and heads for the door, the barber steps offscreen to grab the man's change, but returns with a beige trench coat which he insists the man take as he leaves. The gesture needs no explanation, just as the barber needed no explanation to understand that his client was a man on the run.
These back-to-back sequences comprise the two most shining moments in Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 film about the French Resistance movement against the German occupation in World War II. Melville's film is well-crafted from start to finish, employing an somber blue color palette and the ominous descending chromatic scale of an antique piano to effectively set the mood. No, this isn't a feel-good story about the brave men and women who stood up to the Nazis; it's a bleakly realistic depiction of life in the shadows of wartime. It should come as no surprise that none of the characters on the side of the Resistance (all of them veritable historical figures) escaped martyrdom, nor that in their moments of deepest desperation, some were forced to turn on their own comrades for the good of their movement.