by Allan Fish
(France 1956 102m) DVD1/2
Aka. Un Condamné a Mort s’est échappé
Two steel spoons
p Jean Thullier, Alain Poire d/w Robert Bresson articles André Devigny ph Léonce-Henry Burel ed Raymond Lamy m “Mass in C.Minor” by W.A.Mozart art Pierre Charbonnier
François Letterier (Lt.Fontaine), Charles le Clainche (François Jost), Roland Monod (De Leiris, the pastor), Maurice Beerblock (Blanchet), Jacques Ertaud (Orsini), Jean-Paul Delhumeau (Hebrard),
Forget all thoughts of The Captive Heart, Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, this is the greatest POW film (okay, maybe La Grande Illusion excepted). Yet there’s no internal camaraderie, no carols at Chrimbo, no tunnelling at night and emptying dirt through pockets in the morning, no informers and no friendly German guards. Bresson’s protagonist tries to escape not because it’s the soldier’s duty to attempt escape, but because he has to escape to survive. As a member of the captured Resistance, he’s effectively on death row.
Lieutenant Fontaine has been captured for sabotage work after blowing up a crucial bridge. Awaiting his sentence he is sent to a secure prison camp and given one of a row of solitary cells, only two by three metres in size. He only has brief contact with the other prisoners and concentrates every effort into attempting to escape while awaiting his inevitable death sentence, but comes to realise that he needs an accomplice to help him succeed. Who can he trust?
At times, Bresson’s trademark understatement and minimalist technique almost makes this film worthy of Clouzot, such is the tension. The final escape, which takes place over the course of four hours after midnight, is quite unbearable. Every potential obstacle, every unknown sound, every rising of the blood pressure combining to make it all the more nail-biting to watch, so much so that anyone watching this and reaching the end without giving themselves an oral manicure could hardly have been paying attention. Letterier, as the heroic escapee, is a truly indelible image. His inscrutable face, permanently blood-stained shirt and despondent expression perfectly suited to Bresson’s narrative style. This is a film in which there is no place for Hollywood style grandstanding and histrionics. None of the performances stand out particularly because they are not meant to. Indeed they are not really performances so much as enactments. There’s an element of truth to the film that is unmistakable and its first person narrator gives the film almost a diary feel to match his earlier account of the dying priest. Yet there’s also a religious quality to the work that recalls that early Bresson masterwork. Not only in the character of one of the prisoners cherishing his Bible (from which the film’s subtitle, “the wind bloweth where it listeth“, is taken), but also in the serenity of the central characters and the perfect use of Mozart’s immortal ‘Kyrie’, which may be the best use of any of that composer’s works in the history of cinema.
For all this, however, it’s the individual contributions that remain remarkable. How can one overlook the excellent camerawork of that forgotten master Léonce Burel, thirty years after his pioneering work for Gance, the careful editing of Raymond Lamy or Bresson’s unparalleled use of sound? Every single noise takes on a tension all of its own, from the squeaking at the outer wall that reveals itself to be a bicycle, the shots of execution gunfire, the nearly fatal clanking of a dropped metal hook in the cell, the clock chiming the midnight hours, the passing train drowning out the cries of a murdered guard and, most famously and repeatedly, the relentless scraping of the spoon chisel on the wooden door. Each scrape like fingers scraping down a blackboard and sending chills up the spine. This masterpiece truly is not as well known as it should be and is an unquestioned great film of its unrivalled director. No other film in his canon fills one with such an exultant feeling as we watch the lights dim. As our heroes breathe the fresh air of freedom, they are not the only ones to be liberated. Extraordinary.