Five cons sharing the same jail cell and digging a hole to freedom sounds like another formulaic plotline we would have expected from a Hollywood prison movie in the 1940s but such understated simplicity is what makes director Jacques Becker’s last film, ‘Le Trou’, a tense and moving study of male camaraderie, prison life and betrayal. Beginning with Paul Muni’s explosive performance in the groundbreaking, ‘I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang’, prison life afforded filmmakers with the chance of using the prison as a microcosm to comment upon the social ills of contemporary American life.
Nothing much has changed; even today filmmakers like ‘Frank Darabont’ with ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘The Green Mile’ have offered definitive examples of the genre, using the conventions as a means of dealing with the contradictions and infinite mysteries of the human condition. If humanism is the driving force behind the appeal of the prison movie then we could possibly trace the influence back to the neo realist films of the Italian masters like De Sica in which characters were repeatedly entangled in a maze of spiritual and moral uncertainty, only to realise how society is one giant prison that traps and narrows the ambitions of individuals attempting to survive. Such a connection seems valid when you consider how films like ‘Cool Hand Luke’, ‘The Birdman of Alcatraz’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ are interested in the value of hope as a core humanist ideology that will help liberate those that have become privy to the propaganda of prison life as an institutional means of control and tool for suppressing any ideas of reformation.
Resurrection and redemption have dominated the thematic and emotional language of the American prison movie, and when Andy Dufrane (Tim Robbins) escapes from Shawshank prison as Morgan Freeman’s voice over informs us of his spiritual journey through a tunnel of shit and sewage, we are helpless to the sentimental celebration of the human spirit, as the capacity to persevere and overcome transcends all cultures, acting as a form of universal cinematic language. The frighteningly consistent absence of women from the prison movie genre is another telling indication of how most genres in existence today have more or less been exclusively created by men so that they have an avenue for exorcising homoerotic fears and repressions.
No genre other than the western has offered writers and directors with the chance of exploring the tensions of what happens when a group of overtly masculine criminals are placed within the confines of a single geographical space and dictated by the institution to become civilized. If Darabont’s emotionally manipulative and sentimental melodrama, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ turned the genre on it’s head by giving audiences the what they had been craving for over three decades, an escape that is both spiritually uplifting and brilliantly executed. Such is the catharsis when Andy and Red meet on the edge of the ocean, one cannot help but feel that every other prison film before had always been about sustaining a downbeat mood, and that entertaining the notion of escape was merely idealistic wish fulfilment in a system geared to maintaining the status quo, ensuring nihilism became a dominant ideological value embraced by all those who have transgressed against normal society.
Such is the case with Jacques Becker’s last film as a director in 1960, ‘Le Trou’, a classic prison movie that opts for long takes and naturalistic sound to give an account of a true story in which the loyalties of a group of likable prisoners are placed under intense scrutiny when they decide to dig a tunnel underneath the prison with the hope of escaping to freedom. Of course, this being a prison movie, and quite a conventional one in terms of narrative, a final escape alludes all those involved including the one who is adamant of staying behind. What makes this an outstanding example of genre filmmaking is Becker’s glaring emphasis on the intricacy and details of the escape plan, creating a genuinely convincing atmosphere of ambiguity between the prisoners, and showing us the painstaking lengths which they must go to so they can ensure their safe escape.
Less a statement about prison life, and more a commentary on trying to get behind the individual mentality of what motivates people to betray the loyalty of those around them, ‘Le Trou’, offers little in terms of an explanation for what transpires so painfully at the end of the film as Becker chooses to frustrate our emotions by denying us any kind of contrived Hollywood moment between the prisoner and the sympathetic warden. Gripping cinema from start to finish and made altogether more special for Criterion’s faithful and caring release of the film on DVD.