Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (screening at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Pacific Film Archive in downtown Berkeley) is, in your humble scribe’s opinion, the greatest prison break film of them all — and it’s not a particularly close contest. Becker (who died shortly before the film was released) based his story on José Giovanni’s semi-autobiographical 1957 novel The Break, and to heighten the verisimilitude he assigned non-actor Jean Keraudy (who’d himself participated in an escape attempt from Paris’s La Santé Prison in 1947, before giving up crime for acting) to preface Le Trou with an attention-getting “breaking the fourth wall” introduction.
The story: Accused of the attempted murder of his wife, Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel) has been transferred to a new cell, where he’ll await trial along with Roland (Keraudy, born Roland Barbat), Manu (Philippe LeRoy), ‘the Reverend’ Vosselin (Raymond Meunier), and Geo (Michel Constantin). Five to a cell is an extremely tight fit, but the quintet will make do — at least they’re allowed to wear civilian clothes, and can receive generous care packages from their loved ones filled with rice pudding, foie gras, sausages and more. They’re even allowed a knife with which to cut bread: This is definitely no American jail!
The original four have been spending their copious free time folding pre-cut cardboard sheets into boxes to hold wine bottles, but their hard work literally conceals their true intention: escape. At first reluctant to let Gaspard in on their plans, they change their mind when they realize he’s likely facing a 20-year stretch; once taken into their confidence Gaspard becomes a full-fledged member of the conspiracy, which involves digging a cunningly hidden hole in the cell floor and breaking out through the Paris sewer system.
Le Trou carefully and deliberately details their plan’s execution. Working in shifts the cellmates hammer, chisel and saw their way through the jail’s floors, walls and locks. Roland is particularly adept at the prison break business, as he converts metal fixtures (including parts of a bed frame) into rudimentary keys and other handy devices.
Screening as part of a weeklong series of films hosted at PFA by director Joel Coen, Le Trou (“The Hole”) clocks in at a generous 131 minutes but absolutely flies by. Shot in black and white by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet (who, in addition to later shooting such renowned features as Jacques Demy’s Young Girls of Rochefort and Roman Polanski’s Tess, was also the director’s son-in-law), the film ends on a believably bleak note that invites the viewer to consider who’s done what to whom, and under what circumstances.
A final thought: The popularity of the prison break genre belies society’s general approval of the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach to justice. One wonders how it’s so much easier to believe in cinematic innocence (or at least, cinematic humanity) than the real-life kind.