Rapturously received but mysteriously forgotten after its 1964 New York opening, Jacques Becker’s prison drama, “Le Trou” (“The Hole”), returns, digitally restored, for a week at Film Forum.
Becker served as Jean Renoir’s assistant throughout the 1930s and was interned for a year by the Germans during the occupation of France. Both experiences inform “Le Trou.” The camaraderie of five prisoners sharing a cell and working together on a tunnel to freedom has something of the Renoir spirit; the movie’s sense of claustrophobia and obsession with prison procedure bespeaks firsthand knowledge.
Although carefully staged, “Le Trou” has its documentary aspects: It was adapted from a novel based on an actual event and cast with nonactors, including former prisoners. The ringer, a bourgeois youth thrown together with four hardened proletariat types, is one of the few professionals. (He’s played by Marc Michel, who subsequently appeared in Jacques Demy’s “Lola” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”)
Extraordinarily single-minded and intrinsically suspenseful, “Le Trou” is often compared to Robert Bresson’s “A Condemned Man Escaped,” made a few years earlier. Despite similarities in plot, however, there is nothing transcendent about Becker’s gritty film. (Bresson scores his film with Mozart; Becker withholds music until the closing credits.) Still, Becker’s death at 53, shortly before “Le Trou” opened in Paris in 1960, may account for the reverence with which his peers regarded the movie.
Jean-Pierre Melville hailed “Le Trou” as “the greatest French film of all time.” His endorsement should be no surprise, given the film’s emphasis on his favorite themes: honor, loyalty and professionalism. But in an obituary in Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard asserted that “only Becker was and is French as France.” Becker himself was a self-declared Francophile; Georges Sadoul’s Dictionary of Film Makers quotes his ringing declaration: “I make films about French people, I look at French people, I am interested in French people.”
Not readily apparent to me, the movie’s Frenchness may have something to do with a convict’s fondness for discussing sex, or the flair demonstrated when the men dress for the breakout, or the emphasis on fraternité. In any case it didn’t distract American critics, who found “Le Trou,” which opened in New York as “The Night Watch,” pleasingly and sufficiently American.
Mainstream and vanguard critics were impressed by its genre stylings. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther called it “a ‘big house’ cliffhanger that throbs with excitement and suspense,” approvingly adding that it “will never be confused with the works of the French New Wave.” In The Village Voice, Andrew Sarris noted that “not even Warner’s has ever turned out a more luminous prison escape movie.’”