Le Trou was Jacques Becker’s last film. Becker was a well-regarded French director whose work spanned the 193s through 1960, when this movie was completed. It’s a prison drama based on a novel by former convict José Giovanni, set in La Sante Prison. Becker wrote the script with the author.
It’s a fairly straightforward prison drama that begins when Gaspard (Marc Michel) is put in a cell with others who have been in prison for awhile. His cellmates are planning to escape in short order via a hole dug under the prison wall. The film shows the interior workings of the prison and of the group of cellmates, who have to execute their plan as fast as humanly possible to avoid getting caught. For example, they take on jobs at the prison, like folding cardboard boxes, as a cover for the digging.
Becker was dying while making the film, and there is a parallel between his determination to finish the film despite the deterioration of his health and the determination of the characters to escape. Becker had been interested in the true story (a prison break that happened in 1947) and a fictionalised version in a 1957 novel. The novel’s author (who had been one of the inmates) got a couple of other former inmates to work on the film as advisors. The set and details were therefore very accurate. An extra element of realism is that for the most part Becker used non-professional actors.
The film subjects some of the conventions of the prison form—there is no sadistic warden, and the guards are fairly pleasant and more or less on the side of the inmates. This may have been the case for the actual would-be escapees in real life. The film has a claustrophobic feel, as you might expect, and does go into the prison system itself, but it is very much about the interactions between the five individuals who are planning the escape.
It’s perfectly shot by cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, who did many other excellent films and later won an Oscar. Cloquet has worked with everyone from Polanski to Woody Allen, including Robert Bresson and Jacques Demi. There is stunning black and white photography and lots of long takes. When the prisoners first start breaking the floor down to get through, the actions is shown in one continuous take.
Le Trou is one of the great French films of all time, and a fine film to cap off a great director’s career. The disc includes several interviews.