LE TROU (Jacques Becker, 1959)

While in his twenties Jacques Becker began as an assistant to Jean Renoir, working on, among others, the (brilliant) Communist film La vie est à nous (1936) and the most famous P.O.W. and prison-escape film ever made, La grande illusion (1937). In the mid-1930s he also began directing his own short films; in the following decade, feature-length films. He didn’t hit his stride, though, until the 1950s, with three works each showcasing a magnificent performance: Casque d’or (1952), starring Simone Signoret, Touchez pas au grisbi (1953), starring Jean Gabin, and Montparnasse 19 (1958), about the painter Mondigliani, starring Gérard Philipe, a project passed on to Becker upon the death of Max Ophüls. His next film would be his last; it was released just a month before his own death, by heart attack, at 53: Le trou (called The Night Watch in the U.S.), which focused on a group—in this case, five incarcerated men planning their escape—and which featured no major star in a galvanizing role. (The cast consists, in fact, of nonprofessionals.) Based on an actual postwar incident (Becker had begun work on the script in 1947), Le trou—literally, The Hole—is regarded by many as the director’s best. It is certainly an exceptionally fine, if distinctly minor piece of work.

It’s a strange film, in which a boy, Claude Gaspard, awaiting sentencing for shooting his wife in the shoulder is moved in Paris’s Santé prison from one cell block, which is “undergoing repairs,” to another; his new cell is already occupied by the normal limit of four men, in this case, four hardened, long-term criminals. Gaspard forms an interesting contrast with the others: at 27, he is the youngest of the five; unlike theirs, his background is privileged; and he is the best looking of the group—indeed, almost too handsome. His intrusion invites both hearty befriending and testy suspiciousness from the others. One must add that the warden himself has taken a sufficient shine to the boy—at times he seems as fixated on Claude as does Becker’s camera—that an aura of Billy Buddism begins pervading the atmosphere. Becker’s symbol for the “appeal” that Gaspard has for the warden is the boy’s fuelless gold cigarette lighter, which, in the warden’s hand, rivets the warden’s attention.

Gaspard is weak—and a betrayer. A quarrel with his wife, which resulted in her getting shot by the gun that he claims she brandished and he was trying to wrestle away from her, was over his affair with her younger sister, who lives with them. Thus we know from the start, as probably the warden knows and as his cell-mates, reasonably, must come to know, that this soft-looking boy lacks the capacity to regard either marriage or family relations as sacrosanct. In the end, when the warden informs him that his wife has withdrawn charges against him and the state authorities will be momentarily closing the case, Gaspard informs on his cell-mates, revealing their escape plans—on one level, an act so shameful that Becker proceeds with a cut that hides the revelation from view, requiring us to interpolate it. Practically, the boy could do nothing else; once released, he would draw new charges against himself if his silence helped his former cell-mates to escape. But Becker permits no pause for allowing the viewer to realize this. Rather, he devises a conversation between warden and Gaspard that blurs the line between the former’s paternalistic concern for the young prisoner and his homoerotic attachment to him; the warden, to say the least, is most solicitous of any disclosures by Claude that might somehow unburden the boy, who seems oddly pensive, even troubled by the news of his imminent release from detention. In a move highly suggestive of Melville’s Captain Vere, the warden sends the boy back to the same cell, this time as an accomplice in ensnaring the other four prisoners. Claude Gaspard will betray the group and its members as easily as he betrayed his wife.

It is, therefore, not to La grande illusion that we must compare Becker’s film, but to the celebrated prison-escape film—Robert Bresson took for it the directorial prize at Cannes, and François Truffaut called it “the most crucial French film of the past ten years”—which only recently preceded it: Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou le vent souffle oú il veut (A Man Escaped, 1956). Based on an autobiographical story by André Devigny, a French Resistance fighter imprisoned by the Gestapo, Bresson’s film finds Lt. Fontaine having either to trust or to kill his new cell-mate, a teenaged boy who has already worked for the Germans, in order to proceed with his plans for escape. Fontaine decides to trust the boy—a stunning act of will for which he is prepared to accept the consequences. The boy does not betray him; instead, it turns out that the boy’s help is absolutely necessary to effect the escape of both of them. The final shot at night of the two on their path to freedom, as the world lies open before them, is among the most thrilling moments in cinema. It is to be compared, inevitably, to the close of John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem Paradise Lost—only here, in its modern context, it celebrates the prospects of existential humanity.

Becker’s Le trou might be interpreted as a sour, even cynical answer to Bresson’s A Man Escaped but for the shame assigned to Gaspard’s disloyalty and the solidarity of the other four prisoners. Their individual and collective humanity are what most impress us; Gaspard withers away in our consciousness to mere nothingness. We couldn’t care less about his fate. Indeed, Becker’s film may be viewed as a coda to Bresson’s film, compelling us to reflect backwards and celebrate afresh the boy’s proof of his moral mettle there. Gaspard’s self-interest is outshone by the boy’s trustworthiness in A Man Escaped.

There are three principal differences to the two black-and-white films, apart from the different outcomes of risky trust already addressed. While Becker’s film is secular, Bresson’s is deeply religious; Léonce-Henry Burel’s subtly inflected cinematography helps Bresson to suggest a spiritual presence accompanying Fontaine that enables him to trust (where he might otherwise kill) and to prevail in no small measure because of this trust. Also, there is no homoerotic element in Bresson’s film. Thirdly, with Fontaine condemned to death and repeatedly brutalized by his captors, his situation is the more dire—all the more so for its identification with national purpose. Unlike Fontaine, Becker’s cell-mates are ordinary criminals, not political prisoners. They are treated (until they make their foiled attempt at escape) decently, not harshly. Indeed, the only brutality we see prior to the film’s inevitably violent finish is their own when, a vengeful mob, they beat up two other prisoners for stealing some money of theirs and material items.

Still, it would be a mistake to discount the seriousness with which Becker’s film also pursues the theme of humanity’s love of freedom. For in fact their seeming lack of a pressing need to escape focuses our attention on how important freedom is to all but one of these prisoners. (One of the original four is ambivalent about joining in the escape.) Why not simply serve one’s time rather than invite the risk of being caught, even killed, or at least ending up serving more time in prison? The answer, of course, is freedom’s call.

The “hole” to which the film’s title refers is not the modern prison that holds the men or even their Spartan cell; it’s the hole they dig in their cell for the escape. Much of the film’s visual fascination revolves around the painstaking process, using a file, by which a hole is dug through concrete to the sewer underneath the prison and, once this is accomplished, the images of men slipping through the hole with astonishing speed and grace. A splendid shot occurs on the occasion of the hole’s inauguration, when the two men on the digging detail that night—each night the men would work in two’s—pass through the sewer and poke their heads up a manhole cover, drinking in a draught of the city street: freedom. Becker and his cinematographer, Ghislain Cloquet, achieve a graciousness and poetic loveliness in this glimpse by the men of the everyday outdoors. Most remarkable is this application, to city sights, of feelings generally identified with the country. Becker succeeds in an instant in making Paris a place of the mind and the spirit.

It is often said that while Bresson in A Man Escaped stresses objects, Becker in Le trou stresses faces and bodies—the human element. (The film is also notable, like Bresson’s films, for its heightened use of sounds, especially during the chipping of concrete and filing of metal in preparation for the escape, and culminating in a discordance suited to the disastrous result of the escape attempt.) Regardless, Bresson achieves the more powerful vision of humanity and its possibilities; Le trou is a film of smaller aims. It doesn’t help that Becker seems at times to be picking a gratuitous quarrel with a masterpiece. One is saddened by the degree of petty envy that must have been motivating him.

I first saw Le trou as a teenaged boy with my parents. It says something for the film’s universality, surely, that on this rare occasion a film drew our unanimous approval. It’s too bad, though, that some have turned this good little film into a bone of contention by making extraordinary claims for it. Le trou stands short and sturdy, while Bresson’s A Man Escaped is a towering example of transcendental cinema.

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