As long as men have been placed behind bars they've plotted to escape, and those plans have powered prison-break movies without end. But even in that large group, "Le Trou" stands apart.
For one thing, made in 1960 and showing in a new 4K restoration at Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts in Beverly Hills, it was the last work by the great French director Jacques Becker, who died during post-production at age 53.
Best known for the Simone Signoret-starring classic "Casque d'Or," Becker was called by critic-director Bertrand Tavernier "the finest French filmmaker of the ’40s and ’50s, the most even in quality, the smartest in his choices."
A meticulous craftsman whose hallmarks were a concern for character and attention to detail, Becker was ideally suited to make this based-on-fact story of a group of five who were determined against considerable odds to break out of their crowded cell in Paris' fortress-like Le Sante prison.
But what also makes "Le Trou" stand out is its passion for authenticity, which led Becker — in acknowledged homage to neo-realist masterpieces like "Bicycle Thieves" — to cast non-professionals as his convicts. He did it so well that several of the key players went on to long acting careers.
More than that, several of the men involved in that real-life 1947 escape plan were crucial to the making of the film, starting with Jose Giovanni, who wrote "Le Trou" as a novel and co-wrote the screenplay along with Becker and Jean Aurel.
Then there was the real plot's leader, Roland Barbat — a.k.a. "the king of escapes" for his three previous prison breaks — who not only vouches for the film's authenticity in a brief prologue but, under the pseudonym Jean Keraudy, convincingly stars as himself in the film proper.
This mania for verisimilitude also meant that, as Becker wrote in the original release press book, "most of the film was shot in sections of La Sante where the original escape attempt had taken place. Our studio sets, built under the supervision of our experts, were authentic to the smallest detail."
If this concern for reality sounds dry and undramatic, nothing could be further from the truth. With convincing characters adding to the story's deliberately paced sense of ever-increasing tension, "Le Trou" ("The Hole" is the literal translation) makes us feel like we are inside Block 11, Cell 6, desperate to escape and fearful things will go wrong.
Introduced first is the new guy in the cell, Claude Gaspard, played by Marc Michel, who went on to star in Jacques Demy's "Lola" and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."
The only character we get noticeable back story about, Claude, is, thanks to a wealthy wife, more well-off than his new cellmates. But a bitter argument went off the rails, a rifle was discharged and the young man faces an attempted first-degree murder charge.
Claude's new cellmates are not happy to see him because, he soon finds out, they are plotting to break out. Having a new guy around inevitably complicates the situation.
Though we don't hear much about their backgrounds, this quartet of hard guys is beautifully delineated due to strong acting and character-driven dialogue.
They include Roland (Keraudy), the man with all that escape experience, tough guy Manu (former Foreign Legionnaire Philippe Leroy), the brooding Geo (Michel Constantin) and the easy-going Monsignor (Raymond Meunier).
Eventually they warm to Claude (they really have no choice) and the film gets down to the business of detailing the escape plans and showing us precisely how the men went about it.
With its emphasis on faces alternating with close-ups of hands doing the necessary work, "Le Trou" draws us into the plan. We see how guards making nightly bed checks were fooled, how time could be told without clocks or watches, how a mechanism was devised to see down a corridor from inside a closed cell door. The tension keeps going up and up, and as for the knockout resolution ... well, you'll just have to see that for yourself.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills