Jailbreak films have a unique attraction. Their heroes are the greatest underdogs, those who defy their persecutors after being reduced to the humblest form of existence. The audacity of any escape is thrilling; the ingenuity of the best ones can be amazing.
It’s why there have been so many jailbreaks in Hollywood. The sight of Clint Eastwood snarling his way through the prison walls on the poster for Escape from Alcatraz (1979) is indicative of the type of character that inhabits these films: determined, industrious, virtuous.
It may seem counterintuitive to describe the virtues of a criminal, but there are those jailbreak films where good, innocent men deliver themselves from injustice. It is the raison d’être of films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), so effective precisely because of the certainty that Andy Dufresne is innocent of the crimes with which he is charged.
POW films work along the same lines. The prisoners in these films are undoubtedly seen as good, valiant men, incarcerated by the foreign agencies that threaten their homes. When those enemies are in Nazi uniforms, it’s clear where the viewer’s allegiance should lie.
Decades before Shawshank was released, Robert Bresson directed a film based on exactly this scenario, A Man Escaped. It is adapted from the memoirs of a fighter in the French Resistance called André Devigny who, during World War ll, was captured by the occupying German forces and imprisoned within the formidable Montluc prison in Lyon.
The compound is a gargantuan, depressing monument to cruelty, where numerous men were interrogated by the Gestapo, executed, or merely softened up before their onward journeys to concentration camps. We see for ourselves how imposing the prison is as A Man Escaped was shot within its very walls. The actual prisoners at the time were shipped out to other facilities so Bresson could document Devigny’s story as authentically as possible.
Unlike The Shawshank Redemption, in which Andy Dufresne’s escape is obfuscated until the film’s revelatory climax, Fontaine’s (François Leterrier) plan is meticulously described right from the start. It advances in agonisingly tiny increments as he gradually loosens the boards of his cell door, scraping away at the soft wood joints with a sharpened spoon.
Every sound is danger. After a rousing overture from Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, silence descends. Every moment of carelessness on Fontaine’s part, every dropped tool or errant footstep, could lead to his discovery. Guards are only occasionally seen but often heard striding the hallways outside Fontaine’s cell. His neighbouring cellmates warn him of the noise he makes.
There are doubts among Fontaine’s peers about him making it out of the prison alive but aside from this, the liberty of one man seems to be of a communal interest. Another prisoner unsuccessfully attempts to escape before Fontaine. Before he is led away for execution he passes on a tip to use hooks to scale the perimeter wall. Fontaine makes it clear to his peers that if he is caught they should pass on his methods to the next man to attempt escape.
This shared mission is merely a continuation of the war. They are still all on the same side and every small battle won – in this case, the freedom of each man – is for a greater good. They are still Revolutionaries, fighting for liberté through fraternité.
Fontaine’s voiceover provides some relief from the starkness of his surroundings and the monotony of his task. Without it, the practicalities of his escape would be lost but even with his narration he never fully articulates how he plans to get out. It is easy to recognise in the ropes and hooks he crafts, however, the fundamental tools of a climber.
Despite the loneliness, Fontaine’s solitary confinement benefits his escape, for he can work unimpeded. Neither does he need to trust anyone but his closest confidants. This all changes towards the end of the film when a teenage Resistance fighter, François Jost (Charles Le Clanche) is thrown into the cell with him.
This inconvenient arrival presents Fontaine with a difficult decision to make. Should he trust François and bring him into his confidence or should he regard him as an enemy and kill him? As tense as Fontaine’s mission has been so far, the introduction of this idealistic young man is the biggest moral hurdle of the entire enterprise. The choice Fontaine eventually makes turns out to have significant implications when it’s time to put his plan into action.
Bresson shoots all of this with incredible clarity. The prison surroundings are meagre, all flat surfaces and harsh angles, so he focusses on the smaller details within them. When Fontaine scratches away at his cell door, we are shown the chips of wood that must be collected using a piece of straw from his broom. The impeccable use of sound further enhances details such as these. At one point, Fontaine takes the glass pane from a lantern and crushes it under his boot, swaddling it in a blanket to muffle the sound. The crunch of the glass and the flashes of light upon the camera as he disposes of the shards in his waste bucket provide the scene with a texture that belies its setting.
This attention to the minutiae of Montluc and Fontaine’s escape is brought to a suitably tense climax. The creep across a roof is made excruciating by the noise of the gravel underfoot and once again, the only chance he has of slipping past the guards is to measure the sound of their steps. As he does throughout the rest of film, Bresson takes his time to articulate Fontaine’s escape in detail.
A Man Escaped is the jailbreak film stripped back to its essence, the plight of one good man versus the prison machine. Despite the rich supporting material, it is the immediacy of Fontaine’s mission that drives the film forward. Crucially, even though we are in on his plan all the way, it’s never certain that he will make it. All we can do is hope.
Original title: Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut
Language: French, German
Director: Robert Bresson
Starring: François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche
Runtime: 99 minutes