After Bresson and A Man Escaped, there followed Jacques Becker and Le Trou. We might question the need for two French prison-break dramas arriving so closely after one another, but it seems important to make a distinction. The spiritual inquiry Bresson set up in his film - about the lengths a man might go in order to achieve his freedom - is moot here: Becker's prisoners are facing hard labour even before they set out to smash their way through the floor of their cell. They're damned if they're do, and damned if they don't.
A new realism was beginning to creep into the French cinema: Le Trou opens with one of the actual prisoners involved in this escape addressing the camera (after apparently bumping his head on the bonnet of the car he's shown fixing) to assert that everything that follows is as it happened. (True or not, you wouldn't argue with him.) There then follows a deft sketch of the inmates' musky, ill-swept, overcrowded accommodation, before we're plunged into the very nuts and bolts of this particular escape bid; there will be at least as many close-ups of joists and brackets as there are of the masters of the universe assembling or disassembling them.
Yet at no point are we in doubt: these actors - sturdy hood types, selected as much for their heft and stamina as for their thesping or looks, and thus highly convincing jailbirds - really are doing the smashing, filing and heavy lifting themselves. Rooted (at 125 minutes, altogether firmly) in the material rather than the conceptual or spiritual, Le Trou is the kind of "heavy" film the New Wave would make light of one way or another, but you have to admire its commitment to the work involved both in running a prison and busting out of it: if not perhaps an art film, as Bresson's great escape was, it's certainly an artisan's film, carved out by a craftsman with a keen eye for detail.
Le Trou is available on DVD through Optimum Home Entertainment.