Following a recent season of his films at the BFI, Studiocanal has released a number of Jacques Becker films on DVD and Blu-ray.
Becker was a protege of the great Jean Renoir and assistant director on many of his most renowned films including here, most appropriately, La Grande Illusion (1937), his perceptive and artistic depiction of war and prisoners in captivity. Becker himself was captured as a prisoner of war in 1942 and spent a year in a German camp. While his own experiences were no doubt influential on his later works, Le Trou offers a different perspective on the subject of imprisonment as it is set in contemporary France. Based upon the true story novel adapted by ex-con writer Jose Giovanni, the realism and intensity of proceedings are enhanced by the cast comprising many non-professional actors, including Jean Keraudy who himself had engaged in a similar escape scenario during his real-life incarceration.
The notorious and rigorously controlled La Santé prison has a new inmate, Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel), incarcerated because of accusations of the attempted murder of his wife with a shotgun, something he declares to be an accident after she waved it at him during a marital argument. He is placed in a cramped cell with four other prisoners – Jo Cassine (Michel Constantin), Roland Darban (Jean Keraudy), Manu Borelli (Philippe Leroy) and Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier). The quartet do not welcome the new arrival as they have spent much of their time together devising a plan to escape. Their highly complex and daring idea involves digging through their cell floor and finding a way out from there through the prison basement and the sewers. They have to deceive the prison guards, creating puppets hiding beneath the bedclothes and carefully observing what is going on outside the cell using a periscope made out of a pen and shrapnel of mirror. Can their plan possibly succeed? And can they trust the new boy?
Utterly engaging, with its director noting its clear relationship to La Grande Illusion, this is a compelling and intrinsically modern implementation of a prison drama that was adored by the French Nouveau Vague but was also instrumental in the interpretation of the genre that had a massive influence on future films of this type. The drama centres on an ordinary person incarcerated even before his guilt has even been determined. Becker spends much of the running time focussing on prison life and how the stranger integrates with his compatriots and is invited to join with their scheme. The film spends much time focussing upon the practicalities of the escape attempt, shots lingering on the same piece of concrete flooring as the conspirators smash it relentlessly with an iron bar procured from their bed. Their plans are intricate and well thought-through but escape is not going to be easy. The pace of the film is measured but intense, focusing on the characters and their motivations rather than making over-dramatic use of tension, which actually enhances the emotional nature of proceedings.
In terms of DVD extras you would perhaps expect that there might not be too much material about a film that is over fifty years old but Professor Ginette Vincendau provides excellent background and analysis of the film. There are also recollections from Philippe Leroy,Jean Keraudy and a fascinating featurette, L’Envers du décors: A Behind The Scenes Featurette which has (b&w and colour) recollections of the symbology within the film. Le Trou makes for essential viewing.