#242 A Man Escaped
(1956, Robert Bresson)
Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut
Finding context for some films on the must-see list is hard. Sometimes a movie like this one comes along that doesn’t really seem to have much of a place in film history and never really gets much of a fanfare, but ends up being surprisingly quite good. Today, we take a look at obscure prison drama, A Man Escaped.
As you may be able to guess, A Man Escaped is about a man who escapes. That man is Fontaine (Francois Leterrier), a member of the French Resistance during World War II, who is taken prisoner by the Nazis and holed up in Fort Montluc. Unwilling to stay captive, he spends much of his time there meticulously whittling away the boards of his cell door and planning an elaborate escape. And then the title pretty much gives away the ending.
On paper, this is an utterly terrible film. We are given next to no backstory for Fontaine, his interactions with other people are minimal and barely anything particularly happens. It’s pretty much a movie about a man in a room trying his best to leave that room, and very little else. Sound boring? You know what? It really isn’t.
I have no real idea what keeps this film going so well. Despite the limited characterisation of Fontaine, it’s really easy to connect with him. His entire character is that he’s a prisoner and he wants to escape. We don’t know what he did, but we assume it was something pretty noble since it’s the Nazis who have him locked up, and we know that they weren’t particularly nice.
Perhaps the blank slate nature of the character is what makes him so identifiable. If his only real personality trait is his unflinching desire for escape, the audience can simply assign their own traits to him and imagine themselves as the ones escaping. It’s pretty sneaky, but it works.
As a result of this, A Man Escaped is seriously tense. The 1001 Movies book describes it as being almost Hitchcock-esque, and while I wouldn’t go that far, it’s still highly effective. Scenes where Fontaine tests his rope or chips away at the door, trying his best to avoid being spotted by guards, are drawn out and slow in a way that constantly keeps us on edge about whether he’ll be caught.
The tension is also very raw. There’s barely any score to speak of, and much of the movie is shot in close-up or at least in extremely cramped shots. The scenery is barebones and it makes no attempt whatsoever to be flashy or shiny. But this minimal approach still has the ability to grab you and hook you in, leaving you glued to the screen desperate to see the escape pan out.
Admittedly, sometimes the lack of score does cause problems for the movie. During the ultimate escape attempt at the end of the movie, the sparse soundtrack did feel a little lacking, and I at least wanted some kind of quiet score to keep the tension going (I eventually decided to add my own score by playing a track or two from the Metal Gear Solid soundtrack to plug this gap)
A Man Escaped was a surprise gem. I had low expectations of the movie, but found myself hooked and fascinated. And this discovery of great films I would otherwise never have paid attention to is exactly why I started this project in the first place.
Starring Francois Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock & Roland Monod
Written by Robert Bresson
Produced by Alain Poiré & Jean Thullier
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Cinematography by Leonce-Henri Burel
Edited by Raymond Lamy
Favourite Scene: The ultimate escape is pretty tense.
Scene That Bugged Me: Fontaine debating whether or not to kill his new cellmate came out of nowhere and drastically shifted the tone of the movie briefly.
Watch it if: You want to a well-constructed but sparse prison drama
Avoid it if: You’re hoping for a dramatic escape involving explosions