“Un condamné à mort s’est échappé”
‘A Man Escaped’, directed by Robert Bresson in 1956, is a prison escape drama set during the Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War. Fontaine, a member of the French resistance played by François Leterrier, is arrested and, after attempting to escape from the car taking him to prison, is placed into solitary confinement. The rest of the film follows him as he plans and executes an audacious prison break using only the materials to hand and a stoic patience. It’s always tempting to compare movies like this to iconic escape dramas from the past such as Jean Renoir’s ‘La Grande Illusion’, John Sturges’ ‘The Great Escape’ and Frank Darabont’s ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. Whilst Bresson’s film doesn’t have the same balanced morality as Renoir’s movie, or the star-studded fireworks of Sturges’ movie, or the heightened sense of comradery and emotional catharsis as Darabont’s movie, it does have Bresson’s clinical and economic style going for it. This style: underplayed performances, a linear narrative and solid framing without extravagant camera movements, works perfectly in the context of the genre. The audience is able to fully appreciate the meticulous details of both the prison and the escape, which somehow heightens the feeling of desperation when Fontaine is incarcerated and the feeling to suspense when he is finally going through with his escape attempt. There are moments, for instance in the opening scene where Fontaine Is waiting for the car he is in to stop so he can make a run, in which Bresson manages to wring as much suspense as Hitchcock. One of his quirks, which works well in this film, is his focus on the hands of characters. In ‘Pickpocket’ this served to highlight the skill of sneak-thievery, in ‘A Man Escaped’ it serves to both focus attention on the man-made materials Fontaine is using (the rope, the grappling hook, the chisel), but also to express the emotions Bresson’s stoic and remote characters bottle-up.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s engrossing and entirely satisfying. Like Bresson’s earlier ‘Diary of a Country Priest’ it is about escaping, but whilst the earlier film is a man attempting and not managing to escape from his own failing health, in ‘A Man Escaped’ the escape acts as a microcosmic study of the ingenuity and resilience of the resistance. Watch in a double-bill with ‘La Grande Illusion’.