A MAN ESCAPED (1956, France)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Robert Bresson
Cast: François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100%

PLOT: A captured French Resistance fighter during WWII engineers a daunting escape from a Nazi prison in France.

In an old Peter Benchley novel called Q Clearance, a White House staffer tries to get his chatty secretary to pare down her long-winded stories by saying (I’m paraphrasing here): “I want you to imagine the story you’re telling me is a nice big hamburger patty.  Now put that patty on a hamburger bun and cut off all the meat that doesn’t fit, and only tell me about what’s left.”

In a nutshell, that’s A Man Escaped.  In this prison break film, there are no overly dramatized shots or scenes or performances.  There is no musical score aside from snippets of a Mozart mass heard here and there.  There are no shots showing simmering tensions between our hero and the prison guards or his fellow prisoners.  We are only shown what’s outside the prison twice.  Everything beyond the walls is established by strategic use of sound effects: traffic, train whistles, dogs barking, children playing.  Director Robert Bresson is only interested in showing us the story.  No dramatics, no theatrics, just a good story well-told.  He used only non-professional actors, people who would get on with the business of telling the story without giving a “performance.”

Fontaine is a French Resistance fighter captured by the Germans in France in 1942.  He is brought to prison where he is beaten for trying to escape during his transfer.  A voiceover tells us everything we need to know about his surroundings, his cell, his neighbors, and his desperate desire for escape.  He smuggles a letter to his colleagues outside the walls via a prisoner who is allowed visits from his daughter.  But then that prisoner is transferred, and he is alone once again.

The film is meticulous in the details of his escape plan.  We learn in an opening title card that all the details are based on the memoirs of a resistance fighter who really did engineer an escape.  Even if some of the minute details were changed for the movie, all that matters is that it’s extremely plausible.  We see Fontaine sharpening the handle of a metal spoon to make a chisel; carefully loosening the wooden boards of his cell door; unspooling the chicken wire in his meager bedframe to create rope; even cannibalizing an air duct to create primitive grappling hooks.  When he’s forced to shatter a pane of glass, he dumps the shards into his politely named “slop bucket” and empties it into a well with the other prisoners.

Watching these details unfold, I was reminded of many other prison escape films that seem to have borrowed from A Man Escaped.  His method of disposing waste materials is referenced in The Great Escape and The Shawshank Redemption.  Chiseling through the door panels reminded me of Escape from Alcatraz and Eastwood tunneling through the wall.  At one point, Fontaine must time his efforts with a passing train whistle, just as Andy timed his efforts to thunderclaps in the sewers of Shawshank.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you realize somebody else did it first.  Discuss.

The planning of the escape is where the film generates most of its suspense, especially when Fontaine is informed he will be executed.  The next day, another prisoner, Jost, is assigned to his cell.  Fontaine is almost ready to make his escape.  Is Jost an actual prisoner or a snitch planted by the Germans?  In a chilling voiceover, Fontaine realizes he will either have to trust Jost with his plans or kill him when the time comes.  Does he have it in him to do that?  We wonder along with him.

There are bits and pieces of conversations among the prisoners in the shared washroom, and we hear from a preacher and a priest about various spiritual aspects of prison life and our natural tendency towards liberation over incarceration.  There is fruit for discovery there, but I must be honest, I don’t remember too much about it now.  A Bible verse is quoted about Nicodemus questioning the concept of being “born again,” but aside from the obvious similarities of salvation and escape, I’m afraid any larger implications didn’t stay with me later.  I was more impressed with the main storyline of Fontaine’s escape rather than with the spiritual and philosophical implications of imprisonment, communication, liberation, etcetera.  Maybe when I watch it again, I’ll have more to say on that topic, but not today.

A Man Escaped doesn’t have all the fireworks we have come to expect from a prison break movie, but it is still captivating to watch.  The idea that the nitty-gritty details of his plan are even partially based on fact is remarkable.  Ask yourself if you would have known how to make rope out of chicken wire and strips of cloth.  Heck, I have problems tying my own SHOES in the morning, let alone making rope.

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