MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2017, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
I’m sure it’s just as easy to make a bad prison break movie as any other kind of film, yet I can hardly remember any prison break films I don’t enjoy. Even the obviously bad ones - Escape Plan is the first that comes to mind - have a charm to them that seems to just come with the subgenre.
It’s not hard to see why, though. These movies are entertainment machines by design. Prison break films are essentially heist stories with lower rewards and more extreme constrictions. They often boil down to three things - the plan, the execution of that plan (including the myriad of close calls it must overcome) and the camaraderie that grows from these efforts. While The Great Escape probably stands at the crowning achievement of the subgenre, I think it reached its purest expression with Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz.
Made before either of them, however, is another serious milestone, Jacques Becker’s amazing 1960 film Le Trou. Like Kubrick’s The Killing, Le Trou offers a no-frills example of a beloved type of movie, made early enough that it helps set standards rather than have to bother with variations. This is the real deal - all dry and hard and without pretense. Both films are equally compact, and yet Le Trou blows past The Killing’s 85-minute runtime by about 45 minutes.
Long running times are often seen as a demerit, but in this case Becker’s indulgences are instrumental to the film’s elevation. The plan in this film isn’t overly complicated. Five guys essentially chip away at concrete floors and walls. But Becker allows us the satisfaction of watching them work. Particularly in the film’s first half, we spend unbroken minutes watching these structures slowly crumble to the men’s diligent, repeated onslaught with makeshift crowbars and picks. It’s the kind of filmmaking you couldn’t get away with these days (unless you’re David Lynch), which is a shame because it’s also hypnotizing, immensely satisfying and illustrative of the desperation these cons have to break out.
The story is deceptively simple, filled with huge moral quandaries which are whispered in a way we rarely get from modern films. We enter it with charming, young inmate Gaspard (Marc Michel), as he transfers from one wing of a prison to another, landing himself in a cell with four other men who already have an escape plan in process. He can’t control where he goes, and they can’t control who they bunk with, so as soon as he arrives tensions flare - do they give up their plan or trust this stranger with a secret that could destroy all their hopes and dreams.
Because Becker never lets us know which crimes put these men in prison, he allows us to fall in love with them all, presenting them as different variations of Good Fellas, regardless of whether or not that’s actually the case. Their universe is only as big as their cell. Each shares with the other and treats the overall group with respect and fellowship. This is given explicit expression with the arrival of a newbie they all end up taking in.
One joy that comes with films that take place in prisons is seeing that facet of society represented in different times and cultures (as an example, I love all the baguettes they eat in A Prophet). Le Trou is especially rich in this regard. The five men in this film, while locked in one room, have a lot of leeway in their day to day lives. They revel over cigarettes and food and have great rapports with their jailers. In one scene, a pair of prisoners on plumbing detail rob them of some items. They complain to the wing’s authority and he gladly delivers them for a sanctioned beatdown where the offenders are throttled just enough to teach a lesson. There’s a clear society at play here with unwritten rules and agreements. If the film has one fault (and I’m not completely sure this counts), Becker makes prison life look too good to so desperately necessitate escape. You kind of just want to see the five guys hanging out, complaining while sharing each other’s care packages from the outside.
My goal is to convince those who have not seen Le Trou to check it out, so I won’t spoil the ending of this almost 60-year-old film, except to say the questions brought up at the beginning come to fruition in an unexpected but totally earned fashion. And the film has one of those brilliant conclusions where the final two words uttered represent an entire world of meaning. The film does have something of a daunting runtime, but I can nearly guarantee no one will regret that investment. This is one of the absolute greats, and everyone should check it out.