Avoiding all the clichés of the prison movie genre, Robert Bresson achieves the impossible in A MAN ESCAPED: he presents a highly minimalist depiction of a prisoner plotting a jailbreak, and is still able to evoke incredible suspense despite the fact that the movie frequently consists of little more than a man toiling away quietly in his cell. Neither Bresson’s seemingly odd choice of a past-tense title, nor the fact that the film is based on a real WWII event in which a prisoner successfully escaped a German-run jail in occupied France, lessens the film’s impact. As in many of Bresson’s films, the protagonist is a possessed individual whose mission sustains him. While he may stubbornly continue planning, the viewer sees the potential hazards he may encounter and feels an incredible sense of tension each time his efforts are stalled. Bresson inserts a spiritual element into the prisoner’s behavior by emphasizing the ritualistic nature of his daily activities, and by showing how group activity and trust are required to resist the evil, personified by the Nazi captors. Gripping and sublime, A MAN ESCAPED is a cinematic masterpiece.
A Man Escaped succeeds simply as the most tingly, tension-filled prison escape caper you’ll ever see, but given that the prison in question is Nazi sadist Klaus Barbie’s holding pen for condemned French resistance fighters, the story, which is based on true events, becomes a good vs. evil parable for the ages.
Lieutenant Fontaine (François Leterrier) is no coward. As the story begins, he’s attempting to hurl himself from the car carrying him into the prison, which is located in Lyon, France. But rather than simply shoot him when he succeeds in briefly getting away, his Nazi captors pistol-whip him and deliver him to the prison alive, where they hope to pump him for information.
Life inside quickly becomes a routine of emptying slop buckets, waiting for hearings in front of Barbie, and listening to the frequent executions that take place in the prison courtyard. But Fontaine isn’t discouraged. Sharp as a tack, he begins to plan an escape immediately. Learning all he can by tapping on the walls to communicate with his neighbors, he takes stock of the layout and rhythms of the prison and the guards’ movements to come up with ideas. He soon discovers that he can disassemble his cell’s wooden door, and before long he’s taking secret nighttime strolls around the jail to learn more. At the same time, he’s fashioning yards of handmade rope, and he even manages to make a few grappling hooks.
Since conversation with other prisoners is forbidden, communication takes place only by tapping and with notes slipped into pockets (until the pencil patrol comes around and confiscates all writing implements). Fontaine meets several interesting characters, each displaying his own level of either bravery or resignation. Most notable is a priest, who often passes Fontaine Bible passages to study.
What makes A Man Escaped even more compelling is the fact that much of it takes place in silence. Fontaine provides a laconic matter-of-fact narration about the progress of his escape plans, but most of the action is simply punctuated by a soundtrack of Mozart music, which lends the proceedings an impressive gravitas.
The tension really comes to a boil when Fontaine is suddenly given a cellmate, a 15-year-old French boy who may or may not be an informant. What now? Fontaine knows he can’t escape unless he fills the boy in on his plans, but if he does, is he doomed? Suffice it to say the final 20 minutes of the movie are an exquisitely crafted study of suspense.
It’s always fun to watch someone go to superhuman lengths to right a wrong. Fontaine is as smart as MacGyver, as brave as John Wayne, and as acrobatic as Spider-Man. He’s a mild-mannered hero for all time.