New Yorker Films // 1956 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // October 19th, 2004
Believe in the unbelievable.
The ponderously-named Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Condemned to Death Escaped, or The Wind Blows Where it Will), shortened in English to A Man Escaped, was the first film by acclaimed French director Robert Bresson (Pickpocket, Lancelot of the Lake) to use what would become his trademark filmmaking method: the use of non-professional actors executing highly-choreographed gestures and mannerisms, photographed with an austere, noir-like cinematographic eye. Always a darling of the critics despite his sparse output, Bresson is also considered one of the primary influences on the New Wave generation of directors who followed him.
Leaving aside the film's role, or the director's role, in cinema history, A Man Escaped is still a taut, suspenseful drama (based on the actual experiences of French Resistance member Andre Devigny) that is very accessible and entertaining for contemporary audiences.
Lieutenant Fontaine (François Leterrier), a Resistance fighter captured by the Gestapo after bombing a bridge, is on his way to imprisonment at a Gestapo facility in Lyon. He attempts to escape from the car transporting him, but is quickly caught and beaten. So begins his march towards certain death at the hands of an impromptu firing squad. Or so we'd think. On the verge of despair, a small glimmer of hope offered by a fellow prisoner -- the opportunity to sneak a note out of the prison back to his Resistance cel -- gives him the strength to not go quietly. He immediately begins to plan an escape, impossible as it seems. Quietly, he meticulously plans every aspect of the escape, and slowly chips away at the heavy wooden door of his cell. Finally, the tools he needs to execute his escape are made, his door is penetrated, and his plan is clear. However, he suddenly lacks the will to go ahead with the escape, knowing that failure means death.
His decision becomes easier, and his will is fortified, when he is notified that he is, in fact, guilty of all charges against him, and will be executed forthwith. Now, he has no choice at all -- it's escape or die. Things are complicated, however. Is the quiet man in the cell next door to him, who doesn't respond to his attempts to communicate, going to rat him out? What about the young boy prisoner the Gestapo makes his cellmate right before his planned escape? Do they know something? Is the boy a Gestapo spy? Will Fontaine have to kill him?
Given that this is a true story, and that the very title of the film gives the ending away, you might think this film lacks suspense. (I mean, you can't write a tale of your escape from prison if you're dead -- at least as far as I know...) Nothing could be further from the truth. Bresson's unique style works wonders for this story. He forces us to become co-conspirators, as we observe the smallest details of Fontaine's efforts, and jump every time a jackboot clatters up the stairs towards the cellblock. The tight framing of the shots and the high contrast of the black and white image combine to give the film a claustrophobic, imprisoned feel -- perfect for a prison escape film.
The lack of "professional" actors doesn't hurt this film in the least, mainly because it is thin on dialogue. Not much is said inside this prison. The story is told through direct narration, combined with an amalgam of facial expressions, gestures, and motions that punctuate the story as told by the narrator. It's interesting to note that Bresson's style in this film didn't just influence his New Wave successors like Godard and Truffault; it also eventually became somewhat of a standard format for television drama: you also see tight shots, narrative exposition, and lean, austere acting in shows like Dragnet or many of the early television westerns. (As well as more recent shows like, say, Unsolved Mysteries.) But this film was made in 1956, when television was in its infancy, and televised drama still consisted mainly of theater pieces performed live. It's astonishing to see how "modern" this film looks today, nearly 50 years after its release. I'm beginning to see why Bresson is considered to be such an important influence in cinema.
But I'm no cinematic historian (or at best, I'm not a good cinematic historian), so I'll leave the historical commentary to the film scholars of the world. All I can say is that A Man Escaped has not been ravaged by the passage of time; it remains as intriguing and exciting a film as it was back in the mid-'50s. It certainly beats the pants off of many "dramas" released today.
Picture and sound are good for a movie of this age; the contrast in the black and white original aspect print is appropriate, and the picture is, for the most part, sharp. There are occasional moments of weakness in the picture, possibly due to the deterioration of the print. When it happens, it's as if the bulb in the projector dims or flickers a bit. Noticeable, but not necessarily a huge issue. The sound is a fairly straight transfer of the original French monaural track -- and it's a good transfer, which is a key factor. Audio is extremely important to Bresson's films, since he frequently uses sound effects in lieu of visual cues to communicate story elements. Crazee madd propz to the "Mozart" guy who did the soundtrack, too. He's whack, and fly.
It's important to keep in mind what A Man Escaped is, and what it isn't. It is a quality prison-break drama. It isn't a Hollywood prison break drama. This isn't a film that obeys the conventions of contemporary, or even contemporaneous, big-budget drama pictures. To modern eyes, it may seem lacking in production values, or character development, or just in the "feel" one usually gets from a big-screen motion picture. It really does have more of the "feel" of a high-quality, early-era television show. I didn't find this to be a negative for the film; to the contrary, I found the ascetic tone and stylization, and its similarities to television, to be fascinating. But some people may be looking for more meat in their prison escape films; something more along the lines of Escape from Alcatraz or The Great Escape. This isn't that kind of film, and if you view it expecting it to be as grandiose or conventionally thrilling as those two films (which are quality pictures -- don't get me wrong), then you're certain to be disappointed.
There are no extras to speak of included with this disc; only the original trailer for the film.
A Man Escaped, and darned if them Frenchies didn't make a timeless drama out of his story. Not necessarily a film for everyone, but definitely a French film that even those who don't hang out at film festivals can enjoy.
Well, the suspect has already escaped, so a verdict is kind of irrelevant, isn't it?
Review content copyright © 2004 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated