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With: Francois Leterrier, Charles LeClainche, Maurice Beerblock
Written by: Robert Bresson, based on the account by Andre Devigny
Directed by: Robert Bresson
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 100
Date: 10/11/1956

A Man Escaped (1956)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Bresson's Breakout

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Not long ago, I wrote that Diary of a Country Priest (1950) was probably Robert Bresson's best-known film and it may be his masterpiece. Well, as with all great filmmakers, it's difficult to choose a single great film from their body of work. As it happened, shortly after I reviewed Diary of a Country Priest, I saw A Man Escape (Un Condamne a mort s'est echappe) (1956) and I liked it even more. It's so good that I submit that just about anyone -- even people who hate French films -- will love it. Anyone within earshot of my words should immediately put it at the top of their rental list.

There have been prison breakout movies before, from Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937), to Jacques Becker's Le Trou (1960), to John Sturges' The Great Escape (1963), to Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (1974), to Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption (1994), and even the current Chicken Run, but none like this.

A Man Escaped is a prison film condensed. Bresson based his story on the real-life account of a French Lieutenant who escaped from a Gestapo prison in 1942. As with his later Pickpocket (1959) -- also a great film -- Bresson is more interested in the everyday details of the escape, and not the suspense. But the suspense arises naturally from the details.

Our lieutenant, Fontaine, played by Francois Leterrier (a philosophy student at The Sorbonne), narrates his thoughts and spends almost the entire running time in his cell. We never once see his captors. The only other humans we see are a few other cellmates at feeding time or washing time, and then only briefly. An older prisoner next door to the lieutenant lends some helpful advice by leaning out the window to talk. Late in the game, another prisoner arrives and is made to share the lieutenant's cell, throwing his plan off. These people are all almost incidental. They only matter insofar as they affect the lieutenant's state of mind.

At first, Fontaine learns how to communicate with other prisoners and the outside world. Then makes a tool out of his spoon and scrapes at the door, loosening one of the boards, so that he can get out of his cell and into the compound. But that doesn't help -- there's no way to make it outside. He then crafts a rope out of his bedding and grappling hooks out of the metal lamp frames in his cell. Bresson spends considerable time watching the lieutenant at work; we feel imprisoned, but we never feel cramped or bored. The reason for this is Bresson's use of offscreen sounds. We can hear the real world out there, so we know it still exists.

There's not much else to say except that the photography, by Leonce-Henry Burel, is more beautiful than it has a right to be, and the Mozart music is perfectly chosen. I don't want to give away the ending, because, unlike a Hollywood movie, the question of whether or not our lieutenant will make it could go either way.

A Man Escaped is one of world's great films.

DVD Details: New Yorker has finally released this masterpiece on DVD, and they've done a bang-up job. The black-and-white transfer is crisp with just a hint of film grain left for texture. The extras include a theatrical trailer, as well as trailers for Bresson's Lancelot du Lac -- also recently released on DVD -- and The Son, Taking Chances and The Stone Reader.

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