Le Trou: The Greatest Escape, by David Bax
Opening theatrically in Los Angeles this weekend, Jacques Becker’s 1960 jailbreak thriller Le Trou has been restored in 4K. The film now looks sharp and crisp, with a stark contrast to its spare but soulful black and white imagery. But that’s not the main reason to run out and see it. You should do so because it may very well be the greatest movie ever made about breaking out of prison.
Our protagonist is Claude Gaspard (Mark Michel), a soft-spoken, unassuming man awaiting trial for what he claims is a misrepresentation of the series of events that led to his wife being shot in the shoulder. At the story’s genesis, he is reassigned to a new cell due to prison renovations. Now housed with four other men also facing extended sentences, he quickly gains their trust and is let in on a secret. They have a plan for breaking out and being a cellmate means being a co-conspirator. For more than two hours, Becker will keep us glued to the screen by teasing out just how much a part of the team Claude is willing to be.
That character setup, simple but rich, is pretty much the entirety of the emotional drama. In most ways, though, Le Trou is primarily a film about plot and process. Claude is let in on the plan right away but, shrewdly, the viewer is not. This trick, employed to great success in movies like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, draws us along inexorably by keeping us always one step behind, eager to see what’s around the next bend. The prisoners are meticulous—they pass their time and earn extra dough methodically folding together boxes out of sheets of cardboard—but so are the guards, who inspect every morsel of food the men get sent by friends, family and lovers and occasionally stop by unannounced to inspect the integrity of the bars on the windows. Thus, the film becomes a puzzle that we get to watch the would-be escapees solve.
That means sometimes Becker has to be as tenacious and patient as his characters. Le Trou is 132 minutes long, largely because there are extended, static takes of a file sawing through grating or of a length of bedframe being brought down repeatedly on cement. In many of these shots, Becker allows us little to no ellipsis. It sounds stultifying in description but, in practice, it’s gripping. We never know just how close they are to either breaking through the next barrier to freedom or being caught by a guard on patrol.
Apart from Claude, the other four men are played mostly by first time actors, some of whom would go on to full careers and some of whom would never act again, as in the case of Jean Keraudy, who was cast because he was an actual participant in the jailbreak on which the film is based. All, however, are pitch-perfect, a tribute to Becker’s command and to his basic humanity. They are generally good men but we are never allowed to forget that they are criminals, willing to manipulate and lie to get their way when need be.
All of this frames how we view Claude, who may be an innocent tossed into the lion’s den or just another one of them, cunningly angling for self-preservation above all. Then again, perhaps there’s something else entirely going on with him; there’s an ever-present homoeroticism to any movie set in a men’s prison and we can’t help but wonder about what motivates Claude’s attachments or lack thereof. What’s truly enthralling is that all of this is going on in a movie that is essentially, thrillingly about guys digging holes.