Film Review: Le Trou

New print of overlooked 1960 French prison drama makes up in quality and purpose what it lacks in current-day shock value.
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Once again Rialto Pictures has done a superb job of reviving an unheralded film from the past. In this case, the tough job involved in the restoration process parallels the true story behind Le Trou, which depicts in minute detail another kind of tough job—breaking out of prison. Unlike similar pictures, however, Le Trou (which translates as “The Hole”) focuses on the plotting more than anything else—with the human drama seemingly less important until the surprise ending. Fans of the genre will not see the kind of grit and grunge of more recent “big house” movies, but by 1960 standards Le Trou delivers the goods, and something extra.

Director Jacques Becker, best known for Casque d’Or (1952), adapted Jose Giovanni’s 1957 book The Break, which was based on the real-life events surrounding an attempt by five inmates to escape from La Sante Prison in 1947. (Giovanni co-wrote the screenplay with Becker and Jean Aurel.) The one newcomer to the group (played by Marc Michel) holds the key to the success or failure of the mission.

While Becker had previously made some notable crime films, Le Trou revealed a deeper personal quality, perhaps because of Becker’s own experience being imprisoned during World War II. Employing a starker, more naturalistic style than in his previous work, Becker created what some critics at the time considered his best film; colleague Jean-Pierre Melville even suggested it was one of the all-time greatest motion pictures! Unfortunately, both the director’s sudden death at age 53 before Le Trou’s release (as The Night Watch in the U.S.) and the hoopla at the time surrounding the maiden efforts by Godard and Truffaut of the French New Wave overshadowed Becker’s final production.

The attention to the smallest facets of the prison escape were accentuated by Becker’s insistence on shooting at La Sante and hiring the actual inmates to be either consultants on the film or portray themselves in the story. In one particularly celebrated part, Ghislain Cloquet’s camera lingers for an unbroken, four-minute-long take on the digging of a hole through the cement prison cell floor. Rather than becoming tiresome, the sequence highlights the realities of the frustratingly arduous task. Yet unlike most Italian Neorealist films of years earlier, there is less traditional movie action or melodrama—literally, there is no music in the film other than during the closing credits. (From the Greek, melodrama translates as “music drama.”)

Becker takes the risk of turning the tale into a dry “how to” pseudo-documentary, but his plunge into the dangers of the men’s undertaking draws the viewer into a different kind of empathetic perspective, one based not so much on character development but on shared subjective experience. The twist ending expresses a deliberately ambiguous statement about the false expectations of humanism, the perfect way to address the chronic inequities associated with prison systems and the social order.

Even by ditching the sadistic guards and innocent inmates from central casting or the obligatory scenes of brutality in contemporary films of this type, Le Trou surreptitiously becomes more memorable and disturbing in its own right.

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