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Le Trou: The Criterion Collection

Director Jacques Becker is the French equivalent of a Sam Fuller, or a Raoul Walsh — auteurs without the name recognition of Hitchcock or Spielberg among the general public, but creators of delightful, obscure gems admired by film scholars and cinema fans. Becker began his career studying under the legendary Jean Renoir, working as his assistant director from 1932's Boudu Saved from Drowning until 1938's Le Marseillaise. But by 1935 he began directing his own shorts and feature-length films, though none were to his satisfaction until 1943's Dernier Atout. Becker dabbled in French noir, landing a hit with 1953's Grisbi, and his most popular film was the 1951 romantic melodrama Casque d'Or, which has been favorably compared to his old master Renior's work. And yet — like many key Fuller and Walsh films — d'Or has never been released on home video in America. In fact, the majority of Becker's filmography is unavailable for home viewing. But thanks to Criterion, his final work, 1960's Le Trou ("The Hole"), is the first to receive the digital treatment. Hopefully it will not be the last. As he awaits trial, accused criminal Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel) is transferred to a new wing in Sante prison, although the warden (André Bervil) treats him with respect, as Gaspard is a member of the bourgeois class. Assigned to a room with four tough men, the hard-timers are unsure what to make of him. It is only when he reveals his crime — murdering his wife, for which he faces a 20-year stretch — that the men figure Gaspard is not going anywhere soon, and thus reveal that they are planning an escape. The plan is simple, but hazardous. Digging from their cell to the prison's cellar, further tunneling will get them to a nearby sewer. As the process gets underway, Gaspard gets to know his partners — the leader Manu (Philippe Leroy), the humorous Monsignor (Raymond Meunier) the bruiser Geo (Michel Constantin), and the quiet, professional Roland (Jean Keraudy). But of course, as Gaspard is a newcomer and unlikely to serve a life-sentence, suspicions remain, even as the escape project is well underway. The warden is unusually friendly with Gaspard. And it turns out that Geo has a secret of his own.

*          *          *

Le Trou spends most of its time laying out the intricacies of the escape, offering a richness of detail (and making it an interesting companion piece to Robert Besson's 1956 A Man Escaped). The film allows time to show the men hard at work, be they digging or hiding in the prison cellar from nearby guards, and often in protracted one-take shots. Due to the tension, and because the documentary style omits tell-tale clues, Le Trou is a superb thriller without slack; we know something will go wrong — it simply has to — but by laboring over each and every shot, Becker puts his viewers on seat's edge with the language of cinema itself. Exploiting the prison noir template, the director infuses it with lessons learned from assisting on Renoir's monumental Grand Illusion. The characters are never simplified, and they don't have facile reasons for being incarcerated; in fact, save Gaspard, none of them even say why they are in jail, nor do they explain why they are so anxious to get out. But with a film so utterly stripped of the clichéd prison-film padding, opting instead to focus on the break, such hamfisted expositions are best left unspoken (and perhaps they always should be). By the conclusion, the screws have been twisted so tightly that the story earns its fatalistic finale, and much like a great Walsh or Fuller film, the genre exercise shows why directors like Becker are so treasured. Ignored by the general public, they are unearthed and revered by the faithful. Criterion's DVD release of Le Trou presents the film in a handsome anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer with audio in Dolby Digital 1.0. The only supplement is the pamphlet accompanying the disc, featuring an original article by Chris Fujiwara and excerpts from the original American press book. But as the film is excellent, and most of the principals are no longer with us, it's more than enough. Keep-case.

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