Sunday 25 December 2016

The Hole (Le Trou) (1959)

Prison break movies have a long history and seems to be recurrent phenomenon from the earliest of movies to this day. The List also has its share of them. But why is prison escape movies so popular? Have that story not been told enough times?

When you think about it, it is a bit odd, really. Prisoners will as a rule be in prison for a reason, so these are what we would categorize as bad people. They are in prison to a) punish them and b) keep them away from the rest of us. Then why do we root from them when they want to escape? In the case of prisoners of war the picture is simpler. These people’s only fault is that they were caught by the enemy and we can easily root for them. But what if the convicts were hardened criminals? Would we still be so eager to see them escape? The surprising answer is “yes”, though we may feel a bit disturbed by that answer. I think there is something fundamentally human in wanting to escape imprisonment and it appeals to us. Also the prisoner is the underdog against an overwhelming opponent and we like to see the weak win over the strong.

The fascinating thing about “Le trou” and the reason for this lengthy introduction is that it cuts the prison break theme into the bare bone. This is the condensed essence of this story fed directly into our veins. Five hardened criminals digging their way out of prison and I so want them to succeed.

“Le trou” is based on a novel written by an ex-convict who took part in such an endeavor back in 1947 from the infamous La Santé prison in France. The book is supposed to be a quite precise account of the events and Jacques Becker, who made the movie, was apparently very faithful to the novel. Several of the prisoners were hired as consultants and one of them, Jean Keraudy, is even playing himself in the movie, though by the name of Roland. So, yeah, this is a movie that tries to capture exactly how it was in that cell in La Santé.

Four prisoners, Geo (Michel Constantin), Manu (Philippe Leroy in the role of the author), Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier) and Roland are cell mates. They have for a while been planning their escape, when, at the opening of the film, a fifth prisoner is added to the cell. This is Claude (March Michel), a young, well-educated man charged with attempted murder. The four inmates are forced, though reluctantly, to include Claude in their plans. Then work begins and we see them, through the eyes of Claude, hammer their way through the concrete floor, explore the cellars of the prison and eventually dig a tunnel past a blockage in the sewer. This is filmed in a way to make this feel real. A simpler film may have simply shown some hard working men and then jumped forward to the completed job, but not “Le trou”. The filming is a stretched out affair lasting at least five minutes of hammering the floor a slab of actual, real concrete!). Sounds boring, but it is not. Instead it made me FEEL the work and tension and eagerness to get through that floor. It feels like real time, the release when they get through is physical, it is simply sublime. Same goes for the other sequences. This is not about being pedantic and technical, but to enable us to share the sentiment of these prisoners. I have never seen it done like this before and I am very impressed.

The character development of the prisoners is also interesting. Of the four original inmates we never learn that much detail of their background, but we learn plenty about them from the way they act and deal with the situation. They are all very well defined characters, very well developed, but never explicitly described. Again sublimely done. Claude is the exception. He seem to be less described from his actions and is often a passive observer. Instead he is the only one of which we are offered a backstory. In that sense his portrait is more conventional than the four cell mates, a detail that is worth noting.

The last ten minutes of the movie are very interesting, but it would be a complete spoiler to reveal the details. Suffice to say that it brings in a completely new dimension to the movie and although my first reaction was disbelief I soon after realized that this was a masterstroke. If this movie did not already standout, the ending places it far apart from conventional prison break movies.

“Le trou” is one of the best prison break movies I have ever watched and, albeit very different, is on par with Bresson’s “A Man Escaped”. If you ever wondered how it would be like to dig your way out of prison this is the movie to watch, but even more, if you are interested in the psychology of the wish and need to escape prison you will probably not find a better movie to watch. These people might not, and should not, last two days on the run, but you so much want them to succeed. So much.


  1. I love this one as well. I think even in the case of hardened criminals we root for people who have put a lot of effort into achieving their goals. Here we see every bit of that effort! The other thing is that Becker shows us how disgusting prison life is. If I remember correctly this is the movie where the guards slice through food gifts with a dirty knife.

    1. That sequence with the food inspection grossed me out completely. I would have been pretty upset, but I suppose it was a demonstration of the superiority of the guards. Small people.