Ace in The Hole
- Le Trou review by CH
At a time of year when angle-grinders now echo across once-peaceful gardens, one might fight shy from Le Trou (1960). Its soundtrack eschews music for a series of vociferous hand-driven, improvised tools which a group of prisoners use to break through a series of subterranean obstacles in a bid to break free from a crowded cell and, via the sewers, savour the dawn of the Paris outskirts.
Viewers often marvel at the long, safe-breaking opening sequence of Riffifi. With Le Trou, we are in even more extraordinary territory,. These two hours depict the monotony of such labour. By a miracle of script, cinematography and characterisation, it becomes all the more suspenseful with every blow of a chisel into concrete and its feebler cousin: cement.
What's more, this is based on the true story of a 1947 break-out attempt (the year that Burt Lancaster appeared to such effect in the marvellous Brute Force). In turning to this case, director Jacques Becker (who was dying while at work on it) collaborated with José Giovanni who had written a novel inspired by it. What's more, Becker not only built a replica of the gaol's cells and corridors, but used mostly non-professional actors, including one who had been the diligent brains and brawn of the original escape attempt.
An exception to this was Marc Michel who plays somebody added to the four-man cell while his own was being renovated (Becker's son, who worked with him on the film, recalls how prisons were noisy with such work, an inadvertent cover for the escapees' efforts). Michel's character - young, good looking - is charged with the attempted murder of his wife after yanking from her the gun which she had aimed at him, such was her fury at his embroilment with an even younger woman. Meanwhile, Michel becomes in thrall to the men among whom he finds himself. Here, or so it seems, is new world, more secure than the outside one in which he had been buffeted by his emotions.
Becker's son has recalled that he did not want to reveal too much about the way in which the film was made (as if a magician would give away secrets). And he was right. One accepts the way in which a myriad devices - a small mirror in the cell door's spyhole - contribute to this relentless narrative, static equalled by surge; in which, though the great work of cinematographer Ghislon Cloquet, close-ups of these faces are matched by long shots of corridors and sewers.
As such, it is a ready match for underground terrain of The Third Man. What's more, Becker's film could have been called The Fifth Man, such are the quandaries created by that newcomer to the cell. This is not to place to say more on that front, but to lament its first release (as it were) being greeted with far less than the celebration it has since received.
This is a great film. One can happily watch it in solitary confinement. Watch it with somebody else, though, and you find yourselves discussing it for many more hours afterwards.
And a point raised therein is that, despite the gruel put through the door by guards at 6am, the prisoners are amazingly, ripplingly fit. Could it be that, sixty years after this timeless film, prisoners are fed stodge lest a high-protein diet spurs them to bound over the wall?
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