Director: Jacques Becker
Screenplay: Jacques Becker, José Giovanni, Jean Aurel
Based on a Novel by: José Giovanni
Starring: André Bervil, Jean Keraudy, Michel Constantin, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel
Country: France, Italy
Running Time: 132 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Jacques Becker is a director whose name seems to have passed me by, until I received a press release about the forthcoming re-release of a handful of his films. I almost forwarded the press release straight on to the rest of the site's writers, but I had a quick look on IMDb and realised how well received his work has been, particularly the four Studiocanal are putting out on Blu-Ray and DVD - Edward and Caroline, Casque D'Or, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi and Le Trou. So I picked one to review that sounded most my cup of tea, (Le Trou - a.k.a. The Night Watch) and let some of my associates handle the rest.
Le Trou is based on the true account of a prison break from La Santé Prison in France in 1947 and adapted from a novel (called 'The Break') about the incident written by an inmate of the prison, José Giovanni. Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel) is transferred to a new cell in the prison, joining four other men, Jo Cassine (Michel Constantin), Roland Darban (Jean Keraudy), Manu Borelli (Philippe Leroy), Vossellin/Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier). They seem a little hesitant about Gaspard's appearance at first, but once they warm to him, they decide to tell him about their intended jail break and get him involved in it. From then on, we observe the work done by the inmates to dig their way out of the prison, whilst trying to keep it a secret from the guards. There are also some worries about how trustworthy Gaspard is, as some unexpected twists arrive later on.
Hundreds of prison break films have been made over the years, even before this was released, so, as enjoyable as they often are, it's difficult to do anything new or interesting with the subgenre. What Becker does to set his film apart from the wave of similar stories, is focus in on the details and present an incredibly believable account of what it takes to get out of prison. He revels in documenting the entire process, holding shots much longer than most filmmakers would to show exactly how secret tools were made and how hard it is to crack through concrete for instance. We watch the men take turns to bash through the floor and later a wall in long takes for several minutes. You can see them really struggling and sweating in their efforts. It sounds like a boring experience, watching people hammer through concrete for a few minutes, but it makes you really feel that they're putting everything into this 'mission'.
In fact I was surprised by how much I cared about the inmates. Although a couple of the group are tough and can be confrontational, they all seem like good, honest men, without ever claiming their innocence (other than Gaspard). You don't get the cruel sadistic inmates you often see in films. Adding this to the hard work you see them do for the rather long running time, you feel yourself rooting for the prisoners every step of the way.
The only character you're not totally sure about is Gaspard. This is partly due to the uncertainty cast on the character through the script, but also Becker made some interesting casting choices. Jean Keraudy was actually one of the inmates involved in the true incident and broke out of prison six times. Becker decided to use him in the film, as he was the best person to show how the tricks really worked. So that Keraudy's performance wouldn't stand out in the film though, Becker hired non-actors for the other inmate roles too, except Marc Michel, who played Gaspard. This gives the character a slightly different feel to others, which is vital to the story.
The film grips through constantly keeping the audience a little behind the activities on screen. By this I mean we often see the prisoners creating something or working on something that isn't explained until later on. This keeps the audience on edge, desperate to know how this next trick will be used to further their escape plot. The tension of whether or not we can trust Gaspard also adds to the tension, particularly towards the end as the impending escape moves closer.
It's a thoroughly detailed, no-nonsense film, that gets straight to the point, forgoing any added bullsh*t to deliver a sparse but thrilling experience. I'll certainly be paying more attention to Jacques Becker from now on.
Le Trou is out on 21st August on Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Studiocanal. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds great. The picture is crisp and sharp, with no notable damage.
Special features are as follows:
- Interview with Ginette Vincendeau
- Interview with Jean Becker
- Interview with Philippe Leroy
- L'Envers du décors: A Behind The Scenes Featurette
- Interview with Jean Keraudy
It's a solid set of features which give an interesting insight into the film's unique casting and production process.