Perhaps the most prototypical prison film in our spotlight, Le trou also happens to be one of the best of that category that favors escapes and derring-do. Director Jacques Becker developed the screenplay with the help of José Giovanni, the writer of the novel upon which it is based. Giovanni himself was an inmate once sentenced to death—the sentence was remanded to twenty years hard labor, a term during which, in 1947, he would attempt an escape with other prisoners. Giovanni’s fellow collaborator in the escape attempt, Roland Barbat (also known as Jean Keraudy), was used in Giovanni’s novel and was later cast to play the selfsame role in Becker’s film, in which he excels as the ringleader. Giovanni would go on to write Le Deuxième Souffle, adapted to the screen for Jean-Piere Melville’s film of the same name, and would later direct films himself.
Not uncommon in prison films, Le Trou begins on the outside with a brief, direct glimpse of the prison in its breadth among other Parisian edifices, inconspicuous save for the vertical bars of the windows. Far later in the film a climactic moment occurs that recalls it perhaps, but less attentive viewers will forget it for it will be swallowed in the film’s temporality and by its total mis-en-scene. But for now Becker takes us inside for an introduction. We quickly meet four cellmates, and a fifth, a D’Artagnan who has been forcibly moved to their cellblock due to repairs in his. The four are model inmates, tough and well-mannered, almost kind, but they don’t know if they can trust the newcomer, Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel). Much of the film will revolve around the confidence or lack of it between the four and their interloper, who seems to have his own orbit.
Roland (Jean Keraudy), who looks like a boxer, is the imposing veteran of the group, having made several successful escapes in the past he’s the natural choice to direct the operation. Manu (Philippe Leroy) has equal muster though less experience and is sort of a second-in-command and spiritual leader of the group. Geo (Michel Constantin) has the physicality of an athlete, but is lazy and content to follow directions. Vossellin (Raymond Meunier) goes by the nickname of Monseigneur, though his irreverence would lead one to disbelieve any religious devotion, and serves the function of cooling heads with his wit and warmth.
The four are like adopted brothers, and their bonds become increasingly apparent to us through their interactions with Claude. Hardly ever talking about themselves so much as each other, they introduce one another’s peculiarities and eccentricities to Claude, who, by contrast, seems to only give voice to his own feelings, telling the boys at great length about his life outside and the circumstances that have brought him to this fateful avenue. The film forces the viewer to identify with Claude for these reasons and others, namely his kindly nature so often remarked upon by the prison director (André Bervil), as well as his apparent innocence of the crime he’s accused of and his apprehension to violence. Becker is setting us up for something.
This is a strong cast of non-professionals and a capable crew, both obviously fully committed; the film possesses a completeness, a technical finesse on every level, and it has a pulse, but many of the film’s joys and revelations lie in the script, or are chiseled out of it by the deft hands of its editor. As one might expect from an adaptation of a true-to-life novel, there are details abound, sensorial minutiae at every glance, and in conjunction forming something in the mind of the viewer less corridor-like than arabesque. Note: if one has had the misfortune of enduring Bresson’s A Man Escaped and has come to some lofty conclusions about its merits, mark the contrasts:
Becker has us endure with the characters the tension, the noise, the physical weariness of forming the nascent hole in a single take no less than three and one-half minutes, focusing at a high angle on the boys as they take turns at the concrete floor. Shots like this one will be repeated aplenty; Becker’s almost nodding at us, letting us know time and motion still exist outside of his camera even as it’s still trained on something, though for normal purposes he could cut away, montage it into oblivion. We also watch as an officer dissects, with surgical fluidity, the care packages of the prisoners; though we get the idea immediately it’s still fascinating to watch him have a go at it, using a single non-serrated blade to excavate the carefully wrapped treats and toiletries. And then something that would seem to unconsciously jab at an earnest motif in Bresson’s film, we see the prisoners pressing against their window bars to pass along information and goods laterally, but instead of the conveniences of a courtyard with patrolling magi, the inmates have to get clever, swinging a slip-knotted rope from one cell to the next to reel in their contraband. Rather than a plot contrivance, a scene like this one gives flesh to the bone and seems to say ‘this is just one ingenuity among many, one way the prisoners elude their confinement’.
Without getting into too much of an undressing of A Man Escaped by comparison, it may be worth mentioning one more salient detail. Unlike that much-esteemed and better-known film, Le trou takes the viewer, logically, through the tall procedure of tracing the proposed escape route. In one of the film’s longest and most thrilling scenes, Roland and Manu have gone into the finished hole to explore the corridors below to find a sewer system through which to escape. Becker takes care with this scene as with others to render its temporality homogenous. Cuts are only ever employed to take us closer to the action, or further away, whatever the case may be, or to alternate the angle of viewing, but never time—we are with the two men every second of the way; the emphasis on timing is most evident when the boys later devise an hourglass to assist their work.
Roland and Manu slink their way through the prison’s underbelly, cutting through bars and doors, evading patrolmen, fashioning a master key with discarded materiel, lighting their way with a tincture of oil in an inkwell, walking steadfast through the shadows to their destination, the sewer. The plan is not set in stone; it unfurls like a flag and is subject to the whims of the breeze, and Roland with all his experience compasses it and makes his map accord with chance. Becker takes us on a memorable journey with them and with the others as they make their way into the sewer two by two, alternating their heft on the wall that separates them from freedom.
In one of the most breath-stealing climaxes I’ve ever seen, it’s Manu and Claude who first glimpse freedom, lifting a manhole to see the prison, at night, from the outside, and this time around we are looking up at only a portion of it. Having gone along for the ride, coming to know these men, it’s hard not to feel the same excitement these two feel. Claude feels compelled to give throat to his joy, wanting to take a taxi as it saunters past, while Manu stares silent as he is wont to do, thinking only of his brothers tarrying in their cell. If you’ve really invested yourself into the film, anger is the only emotion that’s relevant during the finale. Manu wants to wring Claude’s neck and so do we; there’s a righteous indignation that hovers in clouds. Never have I wanted so badly for a bunch of lifers to get away with it. In the diegesis of Le Trou, freedom is a taint.