Saturday, June 8, 2019

Le Trou aka The Hole [dir. Jacques Becker]

What is it with the French and crime procedurals? They seem to have an almost innate talent at turning out kickass movies centering around criminals either carrying out a caper or escaping from custody. Jules Dassin's Rififi, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (and any others I've missed), Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques. These often feature a set-piece where a delicate and risky maneuver is depicted in exquisitely excruciating detail, making the audience feel one with the participants and feel their tension. I am happy to have found Jacques Becker's Le Trou (aka The Hole) to be another proud member of this clique.

Becker's film was adapted from a book (written by José Giovanni) based on a true-life prison escape attempt. A group of men sharing a cell make an audacious plan to escape from their confines by digging their way into the underground sewer system from where they can tunnel out of the prison. Jacques Becker's commitment to capturing the realism of the event was so great he not only had sets built to closely correspond with the original locations and shot the prison cell scenes in an equally cramped and claustrophobic space, one of the major actors in the film (Jean Keraudy, he called himself) was a real-life participant in the original escape. Becker decided to use Keraudy after speaking with him and becoming extremely interested in the colorful inventive man, and decided to populate his film with non-professional actors.

Le Trou is almost entirely set in the confines of the prison. It begins with one of the characters entering as a new occupant in the cell already occupied by four men. After chatting with the new man, they decide to accept him as one of their own group and include him in their escape plan. The film covers each aspect of the escape with loving detail and an eye for realism. When floors and walls are dug through, they don't just break apart in a couple of blows, but take about as much effort as you would expect concrete structures to. Iron bars take a lot to be sawed across. Between each set of operations the gang has to be careful to wipe off or put away all traces of their covert activities. The film establishes a routine and constantly reminds us of it. In the wrong hands this could have ended up as a rote and boring exercise, but between the screenplay, the actors, the superb production design and strikingly austere B&W photography, we become one with the rhythm and are constantly riveted. When they break through into the sewer labyrinth and open a manhole to see the road outside the prison, there is a palpable sense of fresh air and freedom.

Do they actually manage to escape? I recommend you watch Le Trou to find out. But Becker's film is not just about the suspense. The prisoners are not action figures carrying out the motions. They have personalities and the relationship between them - trust, friendship, brotherhood - is equally important, in fact the lynchpin of the film's lasting impact.

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