Le Trou (1949) dir, Jacques Becker
Starring: Marc Michel, Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy
By Alan Bacchus
Perhaps the granddaddy of all prison escape films?? There’s been some great ones, ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, ‘Papillon’, ‘A Man Escaped’, ‘Grand Illusion’. ‘Le Trou’ achieves a purity of its genre - distilling all other distracting elements, subplots and red herrings out of the picture without sacrifice of some core themes of brotherhood, trust, camaraderie, loyalty and fear.
It’s a simple set-up, young Claude Gaspard, enters a French prison under a charge of attempted first degree murder of his wife. He’s a regular citizen in a prison of hardened lifers. His prison mates look upon him with suspicion, because there's an escape afoot, a plot which will only work if everyone is in on the plan, and working cohesively for the end goal. Can Claude be trusted? The men test him with questions about his crimes, how much he'll serve, what his appeal prospects are etc, all in aid of determine Claude's reliability under pressure and whether it's worth his while stick it out all the way.
Becker has great fascination with the process of the escape and such is the appeal of the genre. The breaking of the ground is an extended sequence seen from a single shot pointed at the ground. When the men first try banging the steel bar against the ground it looks like a Herculean task to dig underneath, but through its shear length of the shot we get to not only progress made, but a hole dug right before our eyes.
Becker’s use of real time is key to put us right into the tension of the details of the operation and importance of even the most minuscule of tasks. The creation of the periscope device is especially precise. Revealing the small mirror hidden in the baseboard, the breaking of the mirror into small pieces and finding the right shape of shard which is small and thin enough to fit onto a toothbrush thus allowing them to poke it outside their peep hole and see down the length of the hallway.
The best escape films live and breath in these details. Which is why films like these are called procedurals. The procedure of action is just as important and character. And in fact, character are shaped by these actions. Becker knows the importance of a close-up of an object is just important as a close-up of a face, with his camera moving with precision between these objects,
'Le Trou' is a little different than other escape pictures in that we don’t know where each step of the way will go. Each layer of their plan is revealed to the audience as the running time clips along. When the men are digging in their cell, we don’t know what is beneath them. Is it earth, or another floor, or basement? Do the men know? Maybe, maybe not. The surprise at each corner of the story of thrilling and edge of your seat drama.
The French have done these films better than anyone. I guess the opposite of the escape film is the heist picture which is breaking into a someplace as opposed to breaking out. Jules Dassin’s classic 'Rififi' thus makes a good companion piece. Like Rififi Becker use silence as a strong builder of tension. The nighttime escape from the cell is played in pin-drop silence - no music, and muted ambience and sound effects. Same with Robert Bresson’s ‘A Man Escaped’ a film which pairs the narrative down even scanter then Becker’s.
And with all the emphasis on procedural details, if you thought 'Le Trou' was a style over substance the final moments pay off an profound emotional revelation between the men. Enjoy.