Le Trou (1960)
aka: The Hole
A film directed by Jacques Becker

Genre: Crime / Drama

Review published:


Le Trou photo
In 1947, a young man named Claude Gaspard is convicted for the attempted murder of his wife, although he insists he is innocent of the crime. He is sent to the harsh and reputedly escape-proof Santé Prison in Paris and is placed in a cell with four hardened criminals. The latter have decided to escape from the prison by digging their way out of their cell. Reluctantly, they take Gaspard into their confidence and, by exercising their cunning and their muscle, they succeed in breaking through the concrete floor of their cell. The prisoners are now able to gain access to the sewers which run beneath the prison. The only thing that stands between them and freedom is a thick underground concrete wall, which they must knock a hole through with improvised tools. Just when success appears to be within the five men's grasp, Gaspard receives some news that will change everything...
© filmsdefrance.com 2012

Film Review

Jacques Becker deserves to be considered one of the most important French filmmakers of the generation that immediately preceded the New Wave. Indeed, his last film, Le Trou (a.k.a. The Hole), was heavily influenced by the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague and shows a radical shift from Becker's previous, commercially orientated films. Sadly, this was to be Becker's last film - he died just a few weeks after filming on Le Trou had been completed. At the time of its release, the film was generally ill-received and fared poorly at the box office, although some (notably the directors of the French New Wave) hailed it as a masterpiece. In desperation, the distributors resorted to trimming the film by around twenty minutes, but this did little to improve its popularity. It was some time after its first release that Le Trou acquired its present status as one of cinema's greatest prison escape movies, to be held in the same high regard as other shining examples of the genre such as Robert Bresson's Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (1956) and Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

Le Trou is certainly a very different beast from Jacques Becker's previous films and might easily be mistaken for the work of an altogether different director. There is little to connect this film with his crowd-pleasing melodramas Falbalas (1945), Édouard et Caroline (1951) and Casque d'or (1952), and the only film that even vaguely resembles it in Becker's oeuvre is the landmark film noir policier Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). What sets Le Trou apart from all of Becker's other films and makes it his one true masterpiece is its uncompromising realism. Becker is not content merely to retell a real-life episode as authentically as possible; he actually wants his spectators to feel as if they are participating in the prison escape, to feel something of the protagonists' physical and mental anguish as they commit themselves body and soul to realising a fantastic goal. Watching Le Trou is a gruelling but viscerally satisfying experience. We forget completely that the protagonists are hardened criminals who probably deserve to be locked up. Their unwavering single-minded dedication to their task and their unbreakable bond of friendship confer on them a kind of heroism, and we dare not imagine that their adventure will end in failure.

Inevitably, we are drawn to make comparisons with Robert Bresson's similarly themed Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (a.k.a. A Man Escaped), released just four years previously. Both films depict a prison escape in meticulous detail, adopting a low-key realist style which conveys not only the strenuous physical effort involved but also the accompanying psychological strain. Bresson's film is generally considered a more poetic piece than Becker's, and yet Le Trou does have a certain poetry to it, albeit one of a darker, far less comforting kind than we find in Un condamné à mort. What most distinguishes the two films is the harrowing physicality of Becker's film. In Bresson's film, the primary struggle is spiritual - once the hero has overcome his doubts and his fears, his escape becomes a certainty. In Le Trou, the challenge is predominantly a physical one, a battle between sinew and stone, epitomising man's endless struggle to assert his mastery over the implacable world that bore him. This isn't so much a film about a band of convicts trying to break out of prison, but rather a powerful statement of the dauntless indomitability of the human spirit.

Le Trou owes much of its gritty realism to the fact that it was co-scripted by José Giovanni (adapted from his novel of the same title), a one-time prison detainee who was himself involved in an attempted break-out from the Santé Prison. Giovanni's firsthand familiarity with the criminal underworld and the harshness of the French judicial system allowed him to become a bestselling crime writer and also a much sought after screenwriter. Shortly after the release of Le Trou, Jacques Becker's son Jean would work with him on an adaptation of another of his novels, Un nommé La Rocca (1961). Not long after this, Giovanni became a very successful film director in his own right, winning acclaim for such films as Deux hommes dans la ville (1973) and Le Gitan (1975).

Le Trou's razor-sharp realist edge is further accentuated by Becker's decision to employ non-professional and inexperienced actors. One of the cellmates involved in Giovanni's real-life prison break-out, Jean Keraudy, was even given a leading role in this film. Some of the other actors - Michel Constantin and Philippe Leroy - went on to pursue long and successful acting careers, often cast in sympathetic tough guy roles. The casting of Marc Michel for the role of the outsider Gaspard is interesting. With his boyish good looks and aura of innocence, Gaspard initially appears to be the most sympathetic character. His more roughly hewn cellmates are far less easy to engage with, but it is they who ultimately earn our respect and sympathy, whilst Gaspard is revealed to be weak, selfish and unreliable, someone we couldn't care less about. Marc Michel is obviously more at home in the artificial world of Jacques Demy, in such films as Lola (1961) and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). In Le Trou, he is so out of place that we immediately see through him. In what was a bold move for the time, Becker deliberately casts a likeable and photogenic young actor (the archetypal matinee idol) in the most antipathetic role. As he does so, he directs his audience's sympathies to a gang of unprepossessing roughnecks whose only virtues are their loyalty to one another and their devotion to a shared cause. Such is the conviction (no pun intended) that the actors bring to their performances that Becker achieves his aim and gets us to see beyond our blinkered pre-conceptions, to judge his characters according to their moral strength rather than the label that society pins on them.

Another departure from cinematic norm is the complete absence of music from the film (except for the closing titles). One of the strengths of Le Trou is how familiar sounds are used to create its unremittingly oppressive atmosphere and to drive home the extreme physical effort involved in the prison break-out. The prisoners' feeling of confinement is underscored by the never-ending clamour of prison routine that takes place outside their cell - the constant clanging of metal doors, the purposeful tread of the guards patrolling the walkways, keys and locks screeching mockingly, food trolleys trundling along mournfully. To this constant tapestry of noise, the prisoners add their own cacophony of sound, the frenzied smashing of iron into concrete - a howl of desperate anticipation for a freedom that must be grasped with primal savagery. Not only does this ear-pummelling din add to the dramatic tension, it expresses, more powerfully than words ever could, the intense emotions of the protagonists. Freedom is not a prize that is easily won. It can only be snatched by a fantastic exertion of the body and the mind, and this is precisely what Le Trou conveys with its relentless pounding of metal on stone, a pounding that sounds uncannily like the heartbeat of liberty.

© James Travers 2001-2011

The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.

Other crime/drama films of the 1960s from France that are worth watching include: Georges Franju's Judex (1963), Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967), Jacques Becker's Le Trou (1960), Robert Hossein's Le Vampire de Düsseldorf (1965) and Henri-Georges Clouzot's La Vérité (1960).

Where to watch this film

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Film Credits

  • Director: Jacques Becker
  • Script: José Giovanni (novel), Jacques Becker, Jean Aurel
  • Photo: Ghislain Cloquet
  • Music: Philippe Arthuys
  • Cast: Michel Constantin (Geo Cassine), Jean Keraudy (Roland Darbant), Philippe Leroy (Manu Borelli), Raymond Meunier (Vossellin), Marc Michel (Claude Gaspard), Jean-Paul Coquelin (Le lieutenant Grinval), André Bervil (Le directeur), Eddy Rasimi (Bouboule), Jean Becker (Un gardien), Gérard Hernandez (Le détenu à l'infirmerie), Paul Préboist (Un gardien), Catherine Spaak (Nicole), Dominique Zardi (Le détenu qui assiste le gardien à la fouille), Philippe Dumat, Jean Luisi, Paul Pavel
  • Country: France / Italy
  • Language: French
  • Support: Black and White
  • Runtime: 121 min
  • Aka: The Hole ; The Night Watch

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