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LE TROU

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier, Mark Michel
Director:  Jacques Becker
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  None
Length:  131 Minutes
Release Date:  October 16, 2001

Film ****

I’ve always enjoyed prison break movies, from the exciting The Great Escape to the tense Escape From Alcatraz, but one film I wasn’t familiar with nor had seen before was Jacques Becker’s last film, the 1960 French release Le Trou (The Hole).  If you are like me in those regards, you’re in for a treat.

This is by far the best of the escape movies.  It doesn’t deal so much with characters as individuals as it does with them as a group…who is in it and who is out?  The film is about the methodology of the prison break, exacting and meticulous, down to showing the beginning of the five cellmates breaking up the concrete floor in their cell in real time.  What we see on screen is often no more or less than what we see happening.  One man gets tired, he hands his tool to the next man…no cuts or cheats, in a four minute long unbroken take.

The team of plotters was originally four, until a fifth man, Gaspard (Michel) is brought in because of repairs being done to his cell.  This is the very beginning of the film, and we learn that the others, who have formed a tight circle of trust, must size up this new young man and decide whether or not to let him in on what they’re about to attempt.  They do, on the basis of the fact that Gaspard’s particular crime could very well net him 20 years…too long for anybody to just quietly wait out his sentence.

Before the escape plans can get underway, there is a crucial scene where the men’s cell is randomly searched (echoing an earlier one where a guard unceremoniously but efficiently destroys incoming food to check for contraband).  The check is thorough, down to emptying the contents of cabinets and tapping the bars on the window to make sure they’re sound.  It immediately creates doubt…how will these men carry out their plan under such tight scrutiny?

The unfolding of their plans is something I wouldn’t dream of giving away, even in the smallest detail, because witnessing the gradual unfolding of the events is one of the movie’s great pleasures.  It is suffice to point out two facts:  one, a prison escape requires two symbiotic actions at the same time, which are foraging the path towards freedom and covering up one’s every move at the same time…a single trace that gives away what you’re working on would be fatal.  Second, the act itself is long and consuming…for many reasons, it requires accurate timing and plenty of patience.

Most of Becker’s film is about the time it takes.  The actions, given their nature and the environment in which they occur, are enough to build suspense naturally, as well as sustain it over long periods of time.  These are smart, calculating men, led by Roland (Keraudy), the mastermind who has plotted escapes before and is now faced with one of his biggest challenges.

Adding to the natural tension is Becker’s terrific sense of style.  Black and white was the right choice for this kind of film, as everything we see is simply a pattern of light and shadow.  The restrictions of light in certain scenes add to the sense of claustrophobia, which Becker also accents by bringing us uncomfortably close to his subjects from time to time.  Other times, he does the opposite, leaving his camera still while his men walk away from it down a long dark tunnel.  The light grows fainter and fainter with them, until the screen is completely black.

Equally important as the visuals are the sounds.  In a plot such as this, noises are crucial, and silence can be deafening.  The initial break through the floor is an all out audio assault, again making us wonder how they will ever pull off this feat if the most crucial steps require obscene amounts of noise!

But I’m overplaying the technical aspects.  The film is superb entertainment from start to finish.  It takes no time at all in drawing us into the world of these characters and making us understand their dimensions and dynamics, as well as what’s at stake.  From the opening moments on, we are deeply involved with the outcome of their story.  As an aside, I liked the touch that the film never once defined good guys or bad guys.  There are prisoners and cops, but unlike other prison movies, there is no role reversal as to who we deem right and wrong, and there are no brutal security guards for us to hate or any of those tired clichés.  Even the warden is a decent and sensible guy.

The conflict therefore does not hinge on moral foci, but simply on the events and actions at hands.  If we root for the prisoners, it’s not because our hearts hang in the balance with them.  We simply want to see their work and patient dedication pay off.

For all of these reasons, Le Trou merits the title of the best of all prison escape movies.  What it lacks in spectacle or moral conflict, it more than makes up for with a taut, singular direction and the completely absorbing quality of the methodology of its plot.   It also boasts arguably the sub-genre’s best ending!

BONUS TRIVIA:  The film is based on a true story, and actor Jean Keraudy was an actual participant in the events.  He introduces the film to us from the auto garage where he worked at the time and verifies that the story is indeed real. 

Sadly, Jacques Becker died of a heart attack two weeks after the film’s completion.

Video ***1/2

This is an outstanding anamorphic transfer from Criterion, actually framed closer to 1.78:1 than the advertised 1.66:1 (all the better, I think).  The print quality is remarkable, as is the stellar presentation of the black and white images.  We see the full range as lights turn to shadows and vice versa…every shade of gray is distinct, with clean whites and deep blacks.  The level of detail is astounding, as well.  The opening shots, which feature an expansive townscape, are clear from the foreground to the background.  Apart from an occasional scratch here or flicker there, this is a near reference quality DVD offering.

Audio ***1/2

For a single channel mono track, this is as good as it gets.  I mentioned how important sound was to the movie, and the audio on this DVD delivers, with full dynamic range from painful silences to the droning noises that overtake certain scenes, to the sounds that become familiar and rhythmic such as the turning of the locks on the doors, the footsteps in the tunnels, or the impact of the men’s blunt tools on walls and floors.  There is no music until the very end (a nice dramatic touch), but the track is plenty busy without it.  Very high marks!

Features (zero stars)

There are no extra features on the disc, but there is an included booklet with reprinted excerpts from the 1964 U.S. press book.

Summary:

Le Trou is a terrific cinematic experience.  Jacques Becker’s masterpiece is enough to engross, enthrall and entertain anybody who likes movies, even if he or she doesn’t normally care for foreign pictures.  Though light on extras, this otherwise quality DVD presentation from Criterion makes this a terrific night’s entertainment.  Unreservedly recommended.