Sunday, June 25, 2017

Jacques Becker’s Le Trou

Granted, security technology has advanced tremendously over the last fifty odd years, but if you would like to break out of prison, you can probably still pick up some useful pointers from Jacques Becker’s final film. Inspired by a 1947 escape attempt from Santé Prison, the gritty caper film remained scrupulously accurate, thanks to Becker’s co-screenwriter José Giovanni (a.k.a. Joseph Damiani) and co-star Jean Keraudy, both of whom were participants in the notorious incident (and not as prison guards). Whether they know it or not, scores of subsequent prison-break movies owe a debt to Becker’s hardboiled Le Trou (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York, at Film Forum.

This is a story of men among men. Whether Claude Gaspard belongs in their company is a debatable point. He formerly traveled in higher social circles than the rest of his inmates after marrying up. Gaspard can indeed be ingratiating, perhaps too much so. After catching him in a compromising position with her seventeen-year-old sister, his wife tried to administer some shotgun retribution, but instead she was the one inconveniently injured (not seriously) in the ensuing scuffle. At least that is Gaspard’s side of the story and he is sticking with it—for all the good it will do him.

Due to repairs in his wing of the prison, Gaspard is transferred to the cell holding Manu Borelli, Geo Cassid, Roland Darban, and Vossellin, affectionately known as the “Monsignor” due to his seniority. Gaspard is immediately impressed by their square-jawed toughness and their salty camaraderie. Eagerly desiring to fit in, Gaspard automatically joins in when his new cellmates reveal they are planning an escape. Since they have already laid the groundwork, they cannot afford to wait for Gaspard to be transferred back. Plus, they will now have an extra hand to help dig.

The general plan is to break through their concrete floor into the prison cellar, thereby gaining access to the service tunnels, where they will dig through to the Paris sewers—and then on to freedom. It sounds crazy, but it is amazing how smoothly they proceed through the early stages. However, the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” principle of game theory will inevitably rear its ugly head.

Again, for the sake of realism, Becker cast five non-professional actors, including Keraudy, as the fateful cellmates. The other four would continue to enjoy successful film and television careers, especially Philippe Leroy, who is indeed a flinty, hard-nosed standout as Borelli, whom Gaspard idolizes above all others. However, it is rather baffling Keraudy never made another picture because he is terrific as the brooding Darban. Michel Constantin and Raymond Meunier nicely balance them as the brutish mother’s boy Cassid and the comparatively garrulous Monsignor. Yet, Marc Michel gives perhaps the most cringily tragic performance as Gaspard, the desperate approval-seeker and borderline sociopath.

Crisply executed and taut with suspense, Le Trou is a dynamite caper film. After watching it, viewers will feel like they also have a prisoner or guard’s familiarity with Santé Prison. You can just sense the accuracy and attention to detail, even if you’ve never done time. Very highly recommended, the fresh, clean 4K restoration of Le Trou opens this Wednesday (6/28) at Film Forum.