The Film: Le Trou; aka The Hole; aka The Night Watch (1960)
The Premise: Based on a true story. 1947. France. Claude Gaspard is a young, naive man awaiting trial in a French prison. When construction on the prison reaches his cell wing, Gaspard is relocated to another cell, already occupied by four other inmates: Geo, Roland, Manu, Vossellin. The four men don’t seem happy to get a new roommate and we soon learn why. Left with no other option, the men are forced to inform Gaspard that they’re planning an escape. The noise from the construction on the prison gives them a now-or-never cover to dig a hole through the bottom of their cell and make their way out through the tunnels beneath the prison.
Is It Good: Well, Jean-Pierre Melville called it one of the greatest French films of all time. So there’s that. Le Trou is the ultimate prison escape film. That isn’t to say it is the best prison escape film, although I’d certainly say it is one of the top five. What makes it the ultimate prison escape film is that no other film focuses so consumingly on the escape itself. There are no subplots with other prisoners, no characters on the outside helping with the break, no feuds with the warden. From the moment Gaspard learns of the escape (which is early) there are basically only two scenes that aren’t about “the hole” (one of which is a multi-person fight scene comprised entirely of slapping). Le Trou has such tunnel vision (pun intended) it makes Clint Eastwood’s Escape From Alcatraz seem like Altman’s Short Cuts.
Le Trou is just this side of amazing; part of that glorious sweet spot of crime cinema gifted to the film world by France in the 50’s and 60’s. Director Jacques Becker takes his time in a way typical of the period – when Gaspard receives a care package, we watch a guard cut into and examine each and every item of food (checking for Beagle Boy style devices, of course). In fact, Becker lets the film coolly drift by with such an unembellished and style-free approach that it is almost shocking how much tension he still manages to wring from the dramatic moments; the film rivals Rififi for prolonged moments of French-dialogue-free nail-biting. Everything in the film feels real too. Watching our characters dig, bash, scrape, and file their way through the prison, it never feels less than real for a second. Nor do we cut away, left to just presume everything went off without a hitch. We see these guys every step of the way. By the end you feel like you could do it yourself.
This isn’t really a movie about character. Not in the classic prison film sense, at least. This is no Shawshank. Other than Gaspard, we aren’t given much (if any) background on the other inmates, yet we still manage to know them purely through characterization. Their personalities and motivations shine through in a way that manages to fill in the gaps. Becker, along with José Giovanni (adapting his own novel), do an incredible job of giving each of the five inmates a distinct personality without resorting to giving them each a quirky trait.
Is It Worth A Look: Any French New Wave crime fans who haven’t already seen this one need to rectify, pronto. For everyone else, it is well worth a look too. Just be prepared to spend a lot of time in the inmate’s cell, and to watch a lot of digging. There is a scene that is literally just four minutes or so of Roland digging a hole in the floor. It is a wonderfully and subtly uneasy scene, but, you know, it is still a four-minute scene of a dude digging a hole.
Random Anecdote: Author José Giovanni based the character of Roland, the seasoned escape vet, on Jean Keraudy, who was one of the actual prisoners involved in the real 1947 escape. Then, since Becker wanted to use mostly untrained actors for the film, he cast Keraudy to essentially play himself. This makes Keraudy the Audie Murphy of criminals.