Based on a true story, Le Trou (The Hole) is a French prison break movie that has a gritty, honest feel to it, an air of realism (call it French Neorealism). In fact, Jean Keraudy, one of the participants in the events depicted in the movie, is one of the actors in the film. In the opening shot, he tells the camera “My Friend Jacques Becker recreated a true story in all its detail. My story. It took place in 1947 at the Santé prison.”
Fifth Man, Fifth Wheel
- Excerpts from press materials accompanying 1964 US release
- Essay by Chris Fujiwara
Gaspard (Mark Michel) is being moved from once cell block to another. He is moved into a cell that already has four prisoners. The four had been planning to dig their way out of prison, and the break had been planned to the last detail. Naturally, these men welcome a fifth man with all the warmth of a prison shower, but they eventually find they have no choice but to trust him and include him in their plan.
This prison is not for convicted criminals; these prisoners have yet to have their trial. They are being held until the judge can call their case. That three prisoners would try to escape before being tried carries a sense of desperation — an important detail — that might not be obvious to modern American viewers.
Their plan is set in motion when they request work, folding cardboard boxes for a few pennies each. The stack of cardboard perfectly covers their dig-spot. They break the concrete of the cell floor, relying on improvised tools and luck. When they’re through, they drop down into a little-used cellar. They find their way down, down, toward the sewer system, forging keys and covering their tracks as necessary. They eventually discover more concrete between them and freedom. There’s nothing to do except keep digging.
The best thing about Le Trou is the tension. Becker doesn’t play up the tension through gimmicky film tricks and exciting music (in fact, there is no music at all until the end credits). The way Becker elicits tension is to show events taking place in real time, or as close to it as possible. He lets the boldness of the plan really shine through. The prisoners are resourceful, fashioning hammers, keys, and even a timepiece out of smuggled matériel. the plan is ingenious, daring, and inherently adrenaline-pumping.
When the prisoners first bust the concrete in their cell, they spend several minutes constantly whacking away at the smooth slab. The camera stays glued to their progress, never flinching, simply staring, as the concrete square is destroyed. Any minute the guards could walk in and catch all of them with metal hammers and concrete shards, but they persist, as they must, once they begin. The camera simply watches them, tossing its — and our — fate with the prisoners.
Le Trou is an excellent thriller, another rare gem recovered from obscurity by the good people at Criterion.
Picture and Sound
Le Trou is shot in black and white, and although the picture lacks the magical spark I’ve seen in other Criterion discs (Big Deal on Madonna Street), it still looks very good. Becker uses dark blacks and bright whites in the tunnel underneath the prison to create a vast, invisible landscape, frightening in its remoteness.
Sound is treated more practically than stylistically. As I mentioned, Becker uses no music over the film. Only dialogue, sound effects, and silence can be heard. Becker trusts his story to carry the emotional tension. He uses sound only as needed for the story. The sound mix is Dolby Digital monaural, so you probably won’t use this disc to show off your new speakers, but it’s appropriate to the material.
DVD ExtrasThe Criterion disc of Le Trou has very few extras. The movie, chapter stops, and subtitles are the only menu items on the disc. Luckily, the DVD comes with a 6-page booklet featuring two essays, one written in 1964 (the press materials accompanying the release of Le Trou), the other written by contemporary writer Chris Fujiwara.
It’s hard to go wrong with Criterion. Even though there are practically no extras on this DVD, the fact that Criterion would choose to bring Le Trou back from obscurity makes this disc a success. The two essays make the movie even more interesting. Give this disc a look, not for the extras, but because Le Trou is an intense, exciting thriller.