The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Man Escaped

When I discovered a few years back the French New Wave movies of the 1950s and 1960s, I dove in headfirst. My first impression back in school -- Breathless -- was less than impressive, but one movie after another impressed me, especially the work of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker, especially Becker's 1960 classic Le Trou. I couldn't help but think of that film while watching an earlier French film, 1956's A Man Escaped.

In the midst of World War II, a French resistance fighter, Fontaine (Francois Leterrier), is captured by German soldiers after blowing up an important bridge. He is transported to a prison packed with resistance and guerrilla fighters run by the Gestapo. Death hangs in the air, the prisoners almost to a man waiting to find out their sentence and when they will be executed. Fontaine knows his date is coming and decides to do something about it. In a heavily guarded prison with high walls surrounding the place, can Fontaine manage an escape? He has no supplies and little in the way of tools, but locked away in his own cell, all he's got is time to hatch a plan. With the Germans waiting though, maybe it isn't too much time.

There are prison escape movies, and then there's this movie. From director Robert Bresson, 'Escaped' sets the groundwork in one way or another for basically any movie made since even remotely focusing on a prison escape. It's influences are easy to see from 1960's Le Trou to Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood and countless other examples. Bresson films on the smallest of scales, right at the ground level on an ultra-personal level. There's only a few sets -- Fontaine's cell, the wash room, a hallway -- and only a few detours, one being Fontaine's desperate escape attempt in the opening scene that goes unseen on the streets of Paris. Filmed in black and white with dialogue held to a minimum, this is a minimalist escape story at its best. Throw in uses of Mozart for parts of the soundtrack, and you've got a winner.

I try to avoid using 'minimalist' as a description because I feel like I misuse it at times, and basically, it can sound kind of movie reviewer pretentious. But in 'Escaped,' it's a dead-on description. There is one pointed objective here. E-S-C-A-P-E. There's nothing else. We learn little about Fontaine, and what we do learn is enough. His options are simple; escape or die. Doesn't get much more nerve-wracking than that, does it? Even the WWII setting just gets the ball rolling. It could be looked at as an existential, artsy look at one man's desperate attempts at survival. This could be any country, any era, any time period as long as you've got an imprisoned man desperately seeking freedom. No wasted subplots or extraneous background. This is a meat and potatoes kind of story.

Now having said that, this admittedly won't be everyone's cup of tea. Just 99 minutes, the dialogue is truly kept to a minimum. Long scenes in Fontaine's cell have him quietly working as his escape; quietly chipping and hacking at the door frame, knowing that at any second a guard could discover his plans. Other scenes have Fontaine walking through the prison halls, cleaning himself, all the while Leterrier providing narration as to his thoughts, mindset, objectives and how his plans are progressing. Bresson's shooting style is of a fly on the wall in an almost documentary-like feel. Little editing, little to no actual spoken dialogue, and a feeling of reality and confinement. I came away somewhat disappointed with the ending, but looking back on it, I shouldn't have. The whole movie is minimalist. Why was I expecting something different in the finale?

In one of the first examples of method acting, Leterrier is in basically every single scene, but like the minimalist story, his performance is underplayed and generally authentic. Somehow he stays calm throughout his attempt so even a little emotion would have been cool to see. He's not obsessed with escape -- visibly at least, his emotions are in check -- but it becomes an end all, be all objective. Leterrier does a great job with the straightforward and at times profound narration, using his eyes the rest of the time to get his message across. Charles Le Clainche (his only film role) has the best supporting part as Jost, a German soldier jailed for desertion who is thrown in Fontaine's cell with him. Other prisoners he comes across include Maurice Beerblock as Blanchet, Roland Monod as a priest, serving as the conscience of the prisoners, Jacques Ertaud as Orsini, Fontaine's cellmate across the hall, and Roger Treherne as Terry, an older prisoner with some freedoms.

I feel like I'm not doing a great job of selling this movie, but it most definitely deserves a watch. It is a movie that I can't see being made in any other time or place. This was a movie meant to be made in France in the 1950s as film and cinema was changing in a big way. Maybe not a movie you truly enjoy, but one you have to experience.

A Man Escaped <---trailer (1956): ***/****

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