The greatest prison film ever made: Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1960)

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A tight group of four hardened criminals locked up together inside a maximum security French prison cell are not very pleased when they learn that a new member is soon going to share their cell with them. They welcome him with a bit of trepidation and suspicion and they have a very good reason for this: all four are plotting to escape. They have a solid plan in place and the last thing they need is a young novice screwing it all up. When they learn more about him, they slowly being to trust him and let him in on the plan. The plan is quite ingenious and it’s mastermind is Roland, who is seen as the leader by the bunch. He is extremely intelligent, able, skilled and an expert at improvising. His plan involves digging a hole through their floor and another step that requires them to find a way through the dark, shadowy corridors below that houses the sewers and then dig through a concrete hole in one of the corners, which would then lead them to a manhole that would open to one of the city streets.

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French director Jacques Becker is among some of the unsung heroes of French cinema. Every film he has made has a style that is different from each other and this reminds me of the work of Francis Ford Coppola. Le Trou is his last film and is one of the most sophisticated films ever made. While his earlier films focused on characters, Becker doesn’t give much importance to them here. Their backgrounds are not deeply explored and instead more attention is given to their actions, mannerisms and camaraderie. The film was based on true events chronicled in a novel written by a French author named Jose Giovanni, who used to be a former criminal and actually took part in the original escape plan. So naturally, the realism is contributed by his experiences and also Becker’s use of non-professional actors especially Jean Keraudy, the actor playing Roland. He was part of the escape plan along with Giovanni and it’s he who introduces the film.

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The one notable quality of the films of Jacques Becker is that he turns the viewer into a participant in the activities that his characters are engaged in and make them go through almost the same visceral experience that they are going through. It’s interesting to note the complete absence of music, which Becker has employed in his earlier films. Instead he relies on the ambient sounds to provide the necessary tension. The beauty of a Becker film is in the details. Some of the sequences take place in real time and he uses the camera to focus obsessively on some of the characters’ actions and allow them to breathe. We are asked to take it all in. This is observed especially in a few key scenes. When the prisoners are being handed the food parcels sent by their loved ones and the focus is on the guard’s hands, cutting and slicing through each and every neatly prepared and packed food item to check for concealed items.  This is as unbearable for the viewer as it is for the prisoner receiving that particular parcel.

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Similarly, there is a scene where Roland and each of his cell mates take turns trying to dig the hole in the floor with the help of a metal bar removed from their metal cot. This is one of the tensest sequences ever made in the history of the cinema and it is as excruciating for the viewer as it is for the prisoners, who is doing their best not to get caught. Becker also treats us to some beautiful shots when the prisoners enter the dark corridors below. He repeats a particular shot that shows them navigating through these corridors with the help of a small flame and it feels as though their silhouettes are framed inside a bright square or an arch that keeps moving away from us as they advance forward. When we see the thorough dedication of the prisoners and their steadfast commitment to their goal, we forget for a moment who they really are and hope the best for them. Becker succeeds in delivering an experience so visceral and immensely satisfying that very few films have come close to matching this experience. I think Escape from Alcatraz did.

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