Trou Crime

At this time of year, in former years I would have run the Late Show Blogathon, but I never enjoyed rounding up contributors. On the other hand, I loved it when the blog posts came rolling in, so I don’t rule out doing it again.

This year, in memory of the old show, I watched LE TROU (THE HOLE) for the first time — Jacques Becker’s last film, a masterpiece — I might like it even more than MONTPARNASSE 19. Without stars, and with a pared-down style, it tells of a prison escape attempt with tremendous patience and tremendous suspense. Becker holds single static shots of his convicts chipping away at cement for what seems like minutes on end.

The film takes as many risks as its desperate characters: the plan isn’t always explained, so when the cellmates start digging through their floor we have no way of knowing what’s below, and no way of knowing if THEY know and, if so, how. This doesn’t seem to matter. The movie insists on its true story status, beginning with one of the real guys addressing the camera — but the end credits tell us it’s based on a novel — is this a FARGO-style con job? Doesn’t really matter.

The film is so unhurried and unfancy, when it pulls off something beautiful it’s always startling, but also unforced. There are numerous quick pans, which inject electricity into the decoupage. When a tiny periscope is made out of a toothbrush and a shard of mirror, the POV shots that show it in operation, peeking through the cell’s “Judas window” to watch for oncoming guards, is stunning — I’m fairly sure Becker must have built a giant spyhole and toothbrush, like Hitchcock’s whopping phone dial and finger, to pulls this off. One the other hand, he does have some genuine macro shots, so it COULD be 100% real scale.

As the prisoners dig into the prison’s catacombs and then try to access the main sewer, there are stunning camera moves through dark tunnels, the lens almost scudding the stony ceilings, giving the movement the onrushing excitement of a MAD MAX road-level car chase shot.

The movie is without stars, which really works in its favour. Lino Ventura couldn’t have crawled through those little crevices anyway. No special pleading is made for the would-be escapees — Jules Dassin would probably have considered them “too nice,” but they win our sympathy and intense involvement not by virtue of virtues, trumped-up or genuine, but just because they fulfill the requirements of drama so well — they are involved in a difficult task with important consequences, which the audience understands and can follow. Will. They. Succeed? It’s a dramatic principle that always works.

Definitely one of my best discoveries this year. And, what with Damiani and Castellari and Sollima, it’s been a good one for discoveries. Becker seems to have been almost continually improving, like Ophuls or Lubitsch, making his early death even more tragic. What have we missed out on? Still, I can console myself by exploring more of his earlier films.

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7 Responses to “Trou Crime”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, his early films made under the German Occupation such as GOUPI MAINS ROUGES and DERNIER ATOUT (starring the tragic Mirielle Balin) are also worth exploring.

  2. Oh yeah, been meaning to watch that one for YEARS!

  3. Goupi mains rouges is excellent, as is the subsequent Falbalas, two films set in very different but quite insular worlds. I know that Tavernier was a big fan of his earlier Dernier atout, speaking about it as one of his earliest cinematic memories.

  4. We enjoyed Falbalas. There are still some Becker films impossible to see except maybe at the Cinematheque. I want to see everything!

  5. Grant Skene Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I first heard of this film from Tavernier’s Journey through Film, sought it out and was blown away. Only Becker I have had an easy time finding.

    By the way, although I disliked Jeanne Dieleman intensely on first viewing, I had no objection that it was on the 2012 list. Film should challenge convention and a list must celebrate diversity in this day and age. But I worry that making it #1 is going to backfire…

  6. LE TROU is both true and based on a novel – one of the escapers (Joseph Damiani, a singularly nasty collaborator and murderer) – wrote a novel about the attempt.

  7. daniel riccuito Says:

    Sounds great. Will definitely watch.

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