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, including The Great Escape, Escape from Alcatraz, Papillon, A Man Escaped and Grand Illusion. Le Trou achieves a purity of its genre - distilling all other distracting elements, subplots and red herrings out of the picture without the sacrifice of some core themes of brotherhood, trust, camaraderie, loyalty and fear.
It’s a simple set-up as young Claude Gaspard enters a French prison after being charged for the 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 that will work only 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 to determine Claude's reliability under pressure and whether it's worth his while to stick it out all the way.
Becker has a 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 the shear length of the shot we get to not only see the progress made, but we also see a hole dug right before our eyes.
Becker’s use of real time is key to putting us right into the tension of the details of the operation and the importance of even the most minuscule of tasks. The creation of the periscope device is especially precise. We see the small mirror hidden in the baseboard, the breaking of the mirror into small pieces and finding the right shape of shard that 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 as the characters. And in fact, the characters are shaped by these actions. Becker knows the importance of the fact that a close-up of an object is just as 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 lead us. 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, another floor or a basement? Do the men know? Maybe, maybe not. The surprise at each corner of the story is 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 some place as opposed to breaking out. Jules Dassin’s classic Rififi makes a good companion piece. Like in Rififi, Becker uses silence as a strong builder of tension. The nighttime escape from the cell is played in pin-drop silence - no music with muted ambience and sound effects. Same with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, a film which pairs the narrative down even scanter than in Becker’s film.
And with all the emphasis on procedural details, if you thought Le Trou was a style over substance, the final moments pay off in a profound emotional revelation between the men. Enjoy.