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Le Trou

Le Trou
Criterion 129
1960 / B&W / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 131, 109 min. / The Hole / Street Date October 16, 2002 / $29.95
Starring André Bervil, Michel Constantin, Jean-Paul Coquelin, Gérard Hernandez, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel, Eddy Rasimi, Catherine Spaak, Dominique Zardi
Cinematography Ghislain Cloquet
Production Designer Rino Mondellini
Film Editor Marguerite Renoir, Geneviéve Vaury
Written by Jean Aurel, Jacques Becker, and José Giovanni from his novel
Produced by Georges Charlot
Directed by Jacques Becker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Le Trou (literally, The Hole) is a harrowing experience in claustrophobia, pressure and hope among inmates in a French prison. The hopes and aspirations of the overcrowded members of one prison cell are put to the test as they commit their trust to luck and each other, to effect a difficult escape. Jacques Becker's final film is the most realistic prison break movie Savant's seen - as we all know how these stories usually turn out, the tension and suspense grow, every desperate step of the way.


The La Santé is overcrowded because of construction, and five men are put into each cell instead of four. But in one cell, the inmates are secretly delighted. Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel), faces a long sentence and therefore can be trusted. He'll be the extra man needed for a daring, complicated escape the men have planned, that requires nerve, deception, and a lot of digging. The scheme is such a beautifully executed communal effort, that when the first diggers break through to the outside world, they dutifully go back so that their comrades can escape too.

Prison escape movies are usually the kind of caper films that enliven the tension of criminals plotting and digging, with melodramatic character studies and bitter social comment. Le Trou begins with an ordinary-looking Frenchman staring at us from the yard of an auto shop, telling us that the story we are about to see is true, and that he was part of it. His name is Jean Keraudy, and Jacques Becker casts him as a participant in a real story based on his own life, as the 'mastermind' of the escape. The bit of grey sky in this first, documentary scene, is the last we'll see for a long time.

Le Trou is concentrated on the chemistry and tensions between the five men in the crowded cell, who must live together while figuring out if the new man among them can be trusted to join in on the escape. The original four are serving long sentences, and when they find out that the handsome newcomer also is up for a twenty-year term, they decide to bring him in on the deal. The new man, Marc Michel (Roland Cassard in Demy's Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is initially confused but joins in on the plan, which requires digging bit by bit through the concrete floor of their cell.

Le Trou has so much outright work in it, it's exhausting. The sound effects are perfectly pitched to make the use of a pick on concrete believeable. Once the diggers are into the sub-basement, they have to navigate a maze-like course and then dig an even tougher tunnel through creepy, cold underground passageways. While they work, it's like they're digging out of Hell itself. The effort required to deceive the guards is as trying as the digging, and everything must be built and carried out by five men in a room barely larger than a closet.

Forget about prison clichés. The guards and even the warden are nice guys, and the confines of the cell lead the men to become introverted rather than aggressive. The claustrophobia of the cell has become as unbearable for us as it is for the inmates, when we finally begin to penetrate the prison walls. With every new barrier that comes down, our world gets a little bit bigger, until ...

With such forced intimacy, the dialogue in Le Trou comes in short, quiet bursts, and the acting soon breaks down into subtle looks on the men's faces. One man acting out of sorts can easily upset the other four, as there's a built-in incentive for someone to inform. There's no overriding social statement here, just the urge toward freedom by inmates who want to stop being caged animals, and walk freely again. Le Trou obviously wasn't shown in any kind of prison anywhere, but I think it would have gotten a standing ovation if it were.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and claimed in the production notes to have been drawn from unprofessionals. Catherine Spaak and another actress show up in abbreviated but important parts, but Savant doesn't want to give out any more of the plot. Le Trou is the kind of movie that you'll want to see uninterrupted.

Criterion's DVD of Le Trou is almost entirely free of flaws, and the odd scratch here and there does not distract from the intensity of the show. The 16:9 transfer shows every chink in the concrete and every drop of sweat on the faces of the escapees, and makes us marvel at how well a mostly featureless prison cell can be photographed. Le Trou has the kind of soundtrack where you listen to every change in tone and every sound behind the sounds, for clues as to whether the flics are wise to the escape; there is no music, just the sounds of the men endlessly digging. The disc has no real extras, but some very good insert notes from the film's original press kit. A respected figure in France, Jacques Becker died shortly after Le Trou was finished.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Le Trou rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 30, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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