Becker’s swansong is one of the most underrated based-on-a-true-story prison escape movies in world cinema—its simple, efficient storytelling style hides a highly-detailed narrative that propels the story forwards through plot and action.
Dir. Jacques Becker
1960 | France | Drama/Thriller | 131 mins | 1.66:1 | French
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some sexual references
Cast: Jean Keraudy, Michel Constantin, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel
Plot: Four prison inmates have been hatching a plan to literally dig out of jail when another prisoner, Claude Gaspard, is moved into their cell. They take a risk and share their plan with the newcomer.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Prison Escape
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Unfortunately, Jacques Becker died before Le Trou‘s release, which would earn him some of the best critical plaudits of his career. Still, this prison break film feels underrated in the French cinema canon, and not quite talked about as its reputation would suggest.
There could be a few reasons why: one, Becker wasn’t exactly known as an auteur; two, the much more highly-regarded Robert Bresson made A Man Escaped (1956) a few years before; and three, the French New Wave exploded during the time, making a film like Le Trou plain and passé.
All things considered, it’s time to give Le Trou the recognition it deserves—I would say that it is one of the greatest films of its genre.
The storytelling is simple and efficient, and for two hours, we get into the characters’ psyche as they plot a great escape that can only be accomplished with incredible patience, perseverance and luck.
“If anything saves us, it’ll be the noise.”
The premise is intriguing: four brusque men in a prison cell are finding the right time to execute their plan, but they are thrown a curveball when a younger, educated man hoping for a reprieve gets relocated to their cell.
Becker milks this fascinating scenario in dramatic and suspenseful terms—there’s the lingering fear of betrayal despite the solidarity shown.
Le Trou is at its best when it shows with exceptional detail how an escape might be possible despite the odds. Shot with non-professional actors—one of whom was actually part of the infamous attempt in 1947—much of the story is propelled forwards through plot and action.
Thrilling, psychological yet also a film about the innate desire for freedom, Becker’s swansong sees institutional shackles as perversely necessary in order to keep society in check. But the larger question is: when does the punishment really start?