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.