Le Trou

Four men with long prison terms, share a cell.  They’re planning to break out. A fifth man serving a sentence for attempted murder of his wife, is placed in their midst – inside the same chamber. They are now faced with a dilemma. Can they trust the new arrival and share their plan to flee with this stranger? French director Jacques Becker has assembled an absorbing picture impressive in its simplicity. His importance in French cinema has only grown over the years. Becker began his career as an assistant to filmmaker Jean Renoir during the time Renoir produced the classics Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game. Becker subsequently became a director in his own right. Le Trou represents his very last movie. He died shortly after its release. Le Trou (The Hole) was originally released as The Night Watch in the U.S. but is known today by its French title.

This prison film has the authentic detail of a real prison break. The minutia that goes into the planning complements the human drama with utter credibility.  This really takes its time and the suspense develops slowly. The majority of the plot depicts the mechanics of the escape, providing specifics only a seasoned insider could provide. The men ingeniously fabricate a periscope out of a mirror and a toothbrush to watch for guards. At another point the men need to measure the period away from their jail cell while they investigate their escape route. They fashion a makeshift hour glass with miniature medicine bottles and sand. It’s just one of many fascinating segments. Other details like the slapdash dummies they create to take their place, were also used rather memorably in Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz.

There’s an almost documentary like air about the proceedings. There is no music for example. The production is lean and straightforward. At times the presentation can be a bit un-cinematic. Witness the many extended stretches of the men merely digging without dialogue for 10 minutes or more. The sound is an unrelenting cacophony. If there’s a naturalism and validity to the performances, there’s a reason for that. Film is based on the 1957 novel The Hole by José Giovanni who drew from his own experiences and the escape he attempted from France’s La Santé Prison with other inmates in 1947. Actor Jean Keraudy was one of the actual prisoners with writer José Giovanni, known for his multiple prison escapes. As Roland Darbant, he plays himself, even using his original name for the character.

The lack of Hollywood-style production values forces the viewer to focus on the men and their plight. They unite over their shared desire to escape. Normally civilization prescribes that a criminal must be punished and serve their sentence. Morally that’s justifiable. But these men don’t come off as hardened criminals. They’re polite, well mannered, and trustworthy. The responsibility of society to punish these men is never an issue. We want them to break out and that’s a testament to how seemingly honorable these men are. The camaraderie of these five men illustrates a close friendship in which Manu, Geo, Roland, and “Monsignor”” must befriend and rely on each other, as well as Claude Gaspard, the outsider. There’s a searing humanity that plays out in their shared plan. In this way, there’s a temperament to the men that’s not readily apparent but gradually builds over the course of the story. Loyalty is their most prized virtue and their devotion is quietly profound.

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5 Responses to “Le Trou”

  1. Hmm. Never heard of this one. I have to see it. Expect a review of The Naked Gun; I’m watching that right now.

  2. I agree with everything you said: good description and interesting background info: good film.

    The French seemed to have a real talent for making crime films in the period from the late ’50’s into the early ’70’s, and this was certainly among the better ones. It was different from most of the others in being about an escape rather than a heist, and in not having a Delon, a Belmondo or a Montand to put on the marquee. But it did have the same gritty quality as the best of them, and it was a particularly good example of letting the viewer experience the action through the eyes of the criminals. The fact that the style was cool and the sentimentality minimized made the emotional engagement of these films a little less than it otherwise might have been; but that was probably just as well because most of the times the protagonists wound up dead.

    Interesting to wonder if Don Siegel or Clint Eastwood had seen Le Trou. Escape from Alacatraz was fun to watch. Its style wasn’t nearly as austere though, and as a result it didn’t come close to achieving the impact Le Trou did with the sense of reality it was able to create.

    Also interesting that Jules Dassin, the American who attained the peak of his career in 1955 directing the French crime film, Rififi, had tried his hand at a prison film in 1947; but he so over-sentimentalized the prisoners and over-demonized the guards in that one, that it came out laughable. He seemed to have learned a lot about making characters plausible between the times he did the two movies, but after Rififi he proceeded to forget everything he’d learned. Or maybe it was just that the Frenchmen he’d worked with really knew how to make films of that type.

    • What a great comment!. This was the first film for most of these actors – for real life prisoner, Jean Keraudy, the only film. It just goes to show you don’t need big name actors to make a captivating movie. It’s funny you mention Rififi because the person who suggested I see this, also recommended that film. Thanks for your insights.

  3. I enjoyed this film for its realism. Good review. Hadn’t reaized before that one of the actors played himself. I thought another plus of the film is the lack of coverage of the crimes of the men and an emphasis on their prison personalities and their interactions. Their interaction is what makes this movie good.

    • Good point. I always have to question when the director is on the side of “wrong.” The fact that the script didn’t delve into their crimes allowed the viewer to identify more with their friendship.

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