Criterion // 1956 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // April 2nd, 2013
I would have preferred an immediate execution.
It's amazing how, done right, simplicity can do so much more for a film than complicated plot and action. In the past, my best example of this was Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic film, The Wages of Fear, in which a convoy of trucks travelling over a bridge at a snail's pace becomes an exercise in terror. Now, though, I think that's been bested by director Robert Bresson (Pickpocket) and his 1956 masterpiece, A Man Escaped. So little happens in this film, yet everything builds brilliantly on what comes before it until it becomes a spectacularly tense thriller, one that has essentially no thrills in it at all.
French resistance fighter Andre Devigny (François Leterrier) has been captured by the Nazis and taken to the notorious Gestapo prison, Fort Montluc. There, he will face the brutality of the guards until his eventual execution, but he has other plans. He begins a long process of planning an escape that will require the help of his fellow inmates and a lot of luck. When a boyish new cellmate arrives, though, he must struggle with whether he is there to rat him out, or whether he can trust him with his plans.
Based on the memoirs of Devigny's true-life experience escaping from the Nazi prison, A Man Escaped is a unique experience that takes time to work, but ultimately becomes one of the purest expressions of cinematic art that I've ever seen. Bresson had a very distinctive, sometimes difficult to discern, philosophy about filmmaking and he delivers these ideas most clearly in this film.
It moves at a snail's pace, but in order to show the meticulousness by which Devigny found his way out of prison, the film has to be meticulously detailed. Every shot, every movement, every sound is designed with specific intent, such that this is the closest thing to a first person perspective in a film that isn't shaky-cam horror. If Devigny can see something, so can we; if he can hear something, but doesn't can't see it, we experience it the same. The only thing that breaks away from this is the narration, in which Devigny sometimes tells us exactly what is happening on screen, and sometimes gives an outside perspective (it is a memoir, after all).
All of this serves to put us in the shoes of Devigny, so that we know every little detail of how he escaped. Each of these details builds on the last, so that when the tools he has built to aid himself come into play, there is no confusion; it's almost as though, in our heads, we could do escape, as well. Likewise, when Jost (Charles le Clainche) arrives at the cell, we are on the same wavelength as Devigny, feeling like this is all too convenient; he must be a German plant. It's the simplest of stories told so precisely that, for all of its slowness, it becomes a masterpiece of tension. It's not whether he'll make it out, that's inherent in the title. How he makes it out is what's important, and that's truly riveting to watch.
A Man Escaped arrives from Criterion on Blu-ray with a fantastic release that does great justice for this brilliant film. The 1.33:1/1080p image transfer looks simply beautiful. Criterion has done their typically excellent restoration job, so there are little to no damage or dust on the print, while maintaining a naturally filmic grain structure. It's a sparse production, of course, but the black and white contrast is stark and lovely, with great clarity and depth throughout. There are occasional issues with digital artifacts during brighter scenes, but this is a film that spends much of its time in the shadows and the problem is very minor.
The PCM 1.0 sound mix is also excellent and, honestly, this is quite likely the best mono track I've ever heard. While the single channel obviously doesn't offer anything in the way of spatial effects, it has the kind of phenomenal dynamic range that would have thrilled the director. The sound design is extremely important to the film and the mix satisfies every aspect of that completely, from the loudness of train whistles to the echoes of the German's voices to the tiny sounds of tacks being pulled from a bed frame or wire wrapping around cloth. By intention, sound is a character of its own here and Criterion has done phenomenal work with it.
The supplemental features are meaty, as well, especially for those who are interested in cinematic philosophy. There are three complete documentaries, totaling over three hours of time, and a visual essay that spans another twenty minutes. The first piece is a complete 1965 episode of the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps, in which Bresson, notoriously shy of the camera, gives his first ever on camera interview. It isn't the most focused piece in the world, but Bresson is very open about his philosophy of filmmaking and discusses his unique notion of cinematography and the often conflicting relationship between theater and film. Next, we have "The Road to Bresson," a 1984 Dutch documentary that gives notions of the filmmaker from the perspective of friends and those who had worked with him, along with their losing quest to get their own interview with him. The third documentary is a newer, more typical piece in which we hear more about Bresson's philosophies, as well as his lasting legacy. All of these discussed the feature on the disc, but they sweep more broadly through the director's career. The visual essay is more focused on A Man Escaped. In it, images from the film are accompanied by the reading of a chapter of a book on film sound by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. The film's original trailer and the standard text booklet round out the disc.
A Man Escaped is an indisputably slow starting film, which may tax some modern viewers. Sticking with it, though, audiences will find a work of great power and high tension. When the orchestral strains of Mozart's "Great Mass in C Minor" play over the final scenes (the only instance of non-diegetic sound in the film), people will realize a fantastically rewarding experience. With such a solid Blu-ray from Criterion, I can happily recommend this film to just about anyone willing to give it a shot.
No need for a jailbreak here; A Man Escaped is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Visual Essay