"Le Trou," ("The Hole"), is a black and white thriller, surely one of the greatest of all prison-break movies, and another triumph of French cinema, made by director Jacques Becker. Oddly enough, it was made in 1960, but not released in the United States until 1997. In a swift 131 minutes, it tells the story of the bourgeois Claude. While he is in prison awaiting trial for the attempted murder of his wife, he learns that the four inmates in a cell he has just been moved into, as his former cell is being remodeled, are plotting an escape. The four all face certain conviction and long sentences. They wonder: does their new young jail-mate have the same incentive to escape and if so can they trust him? They decide to include Claude in their plans, and he decides to go along with them -- only to learn that his wife has dropped the charges and his sentence has been reduced. He still agrees to participate in the jailbreak, knowing that he's risking his freedom by so doing.
This is director Jacques Becker's final film; he was quite ill, and knew it. He died two weeks after completing it. It is based on a true story of the hole dug by the inmates of the largest Paris prison, la Sante. The screenplay is taken from a novel by the distinguished writer and film-maker Jose' Giovanni, himself formerly a convict. Becker, a Communist, chooses to tell the story in the simplest, most stripped-down, neatest possible way. No music at all, only the sounds of a prison, and dry, sharp yet powerful dialog. The in-mates do their job, to try to escape. The director, Communist though he may be, avoids the annoying cliché, typical of American jail movies, of showing the wardens as sadistic torturers. The four prisoners are solid working class guys, as are the jailers, who, too, are only doing their jobs. Michel Constantin, who was to go on to be a major player in French movies, is making his first movie here. He plays Geo, one of the four inmates, who decides he cannot escape, as the police would hound his mother mercilessly, as they did initially, when they were looking for him; which hounding made his mother seriously ill. But Geo does not rat on his comrades, nor does he shirk his share of the work. In order to increase the verisimilitude of the film, the director has used mainly non-actors, including the man playing Rolland, another of the four inmates, who himself participated in the attempted 1947 prison break. Becker also hired the three other inmates who attempted the 1947 escape as consultants, and was therefore, able to reproduce la Sante to the smallest detail, to riveting effect.
Claude, as played by Marc Michel, is a weak, handsome Farley Granger type, a bourgeois if ever there was one. He has married a rich woman, is carrying on an affair with her pretty seventeen year old sister, as played by Catherine Spaak in a very brief scene, and apparently earns a comfortable living working--not too hard--for his father-in-law, selling used cars. There can be no doubt that Becker, with his Marxist outlook, has created a situation in which the working class men are bonded, look after each other, share their food and cigarettes, and are working desperately hard together, to dig their way out. And Claude is the man they cannot trust.
The inmates are also astonishingly handy, resourceful and hard-working; creating the items they need for the escape from the most common every day items around the prison, developing a system to send messages between cells, and figuring out how to tell time. They dig a remarkably intelligent escape tunnel. Furthermore, throughout the film, Becker gives us a rich level of detail: on the day to day life of the prison; on the prisoners' food; their clothing - they wear their own, and Claude has brought his pajamas with him. The photography is also outstanding, Becker is using a wide screen, Cinemascope process; yet he gives us some deep-focus shots that would be the envy of any film noir director.
Becker's film is as notable for what is left out as for what is included. There are no prison "types" created, his style is restrained to the point of being transparent. We get no display of the horrors of prison life; just enough of the regimentation, drabness of environment, and lack of personal space. Finally, there is no use of music to pump up the suspense. There is, however, a powerful and unique use of sound. We hear every thump, clang, and wail within the prison walls and during the digging scenes.
I began watching this film expecting that I wouldn't care for it; I don't generally like prison movies. Too many men, no women. I've read that Becker, who always enjoyed making gangster films, was playing with the script for his earlier film, Casque D'Or [DVD
], but could not find financing to make it, until Simone Signoret signed on; he then, of course, had to integrate a star part for her into his script. And she became, beyond all doubt, the star of the film, giving a memorable performance. Well, I kind of wished Becker, who was trained by the great French director Jean Renoir, had been forced to integrate some more women into this film, with substantial parts. Though, of course, it's pretty difficult to integrate women into a prison movie; and Becker undoubtedly wasn't going to do it on his last film, the masterpiece he wanted to leave behind. Well, I was soon totally engrossed in this film, cerebral, dark and gritty, understated as it is; and always suspenseful. Is this a rave? You bet.