Sometimes, the simplest approach is the best approach – something that is readily evident in the films of noted director Robert Bresson, and especially in his remarkably reticent and straightforward 1956 film, 'A Man Escaped,' which consequently may also be one of the best "prison break" films ever made.
Inspired by the real life tale of André Devigny, a French lieutenant in WWII who orchestrated a cunning escape from Fort Montluc prison in German-occupied Lyon in 1943, Bresson's take on the material was not only an incredibly meticulous and exacting account of one man's attempt to free himself, but it also marked another step forward regarding the director's own unique artistic vision.
For those familiar with Bresson's other work, including 'Pickpocket,' 'Lancelot of the Lake,' 'The Devil, Probably' and the sometimes contentious 'L'argent' (among several others), 'A Man Escaped' further established the neutral, uninflected tone that many saw in 'Diary of a Country Priest' and would become the hallmark of Bresson's work. But there are some who would argue it was in conjunction with the matter-of-fact, almost mechanical approach of the first person narrative of Lt. Fontaine that the filmmaker's technique would become most widely recognized.
As far as the film is concerned, Bresson saw fit to tell the story of 'A Man Escaped' through a first-person narration that focused primarily on Fontaine's ability to transform seemingly benign and rudimentary objects found in his cell and, occasionally, around the prison, into the tools that he would use to facilitate his escape. In this painstaking and almost rhythmic depiction of Fontaine's plan, we begin to see the aspects of other great prison break films like 'Escape From Alcatraz,' 'The Great Escape' and 'The Shawshank Redemption,' and the connection all of these stories share is very clear. The repetitive, systematic nature of individuals freeing themselves from a seemingly inescapable situation is the appeal of these films, as most filmgoers will know already that the character's escape is something of a foregone conclusion.
To that end, 'A Man Escaped' may just be the granddaddy of them all, as it blends the real world appeal that the phrase "based on a true story" brings to the table with the austerity of Bresson's work.
The film features little in the way of grand cinematic gestures; instead, whole sequences are repeated time and again, adding to the dreary rigor of prison life, but also informing the viewer about the character and his situation, without resorting to unnecessary personal exposition. In fact, Fontaine (played by François Leterrier) becomes a full-fledged character not through what we already know about him, but through the actions we see him perform on screen. There is almost nothing of the character's backstory, much less his personal life or the associations (if any) that await him outside the prison revealed during the course of the film. All we are allowed to know is his desire to be free, and later, the moral conflict he feels when uncertainty over his new cellmate and (possible) fellow escapee, François Jost (Charles le Clainche), nearly cause Fontaine to kill the young man, rather than risk the failure of his plan.
It's at this moment that the full scope of 'A Man Escaped' comes into focus. As much as the film had, up to this point, been about the struggle of Fontaine against the mostly unseen forces (and a door) impeding his freedom, the moment young, naïve, Matt Damon-looking Jost is tossed into Fontaine's cell – lice and all – the story becomes one not solely about the manner in which a man would eventually obtain his freedom, but rather about the character's humanity and compassion, at a time when such a things were in short supply.
This is a fascinating film about captivity; one that balances one man's drive to recapture his lost freedom with an almost ritualistic examination of the process by which he makes his daring escape. Even though Bresson uses a very sparse method of filmmaking, the final product is a finely tuned, captivating and suspenseful prison break film that also has an exceptional serenity running through its core, which adds a second captivating layer to the proceedings.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'A Man Escaped' is a single 50GB Blu-ray disc that comes in the standard Criterion clear keepcase with the number 650 on the spine. Included with the disc is a 14-page booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo along with several high-quality photos from the film.
'A Man Escaped' is like so many other offerings from the Criterion catalog, in that those involved have gone to great lengths to ensure this edition is one of, if not the most pristine editions of the film to be seen since it was first committed to celluloid. This new transfer was derived from the original 35 mm negative and the result is an impeccable image that is nearly free of scratches, dirt and other artifacts that can mar the quality of a film that is nearly 60-years-old.
Moreover, the transfer process was handled with great restraint, as there are no signs that the digital manipulation and cleaning of the film went overboard, or removed too much of the original's filmic qualities. As such, sharpening was clearly kept to a minimum, maintaining a healthy amount of film grain in the image. Meanwhile, telltale signs of aging are nowhere to be seen in this transfer, as it is free of any jittering and edge-flickering, making for a precise and consistent viewing experience. There are a few instances where artifacts remain, but they are few and far between, and never interfere with the image or the overall quality of the transfer.
That being said, the image here is very good; there are some excellent examples of depth and clarity, which produce a nicely detailed, solid image that completely belies the film's age. Black levels are strong, and incredibly consistent throughout, highlighting the precise black and white cinematography on display. This aspect, combined with a restrained brightness to the image gives the stark interiors of the prison a hardened, impenetrable quality that adds a subtle layer to the story at hand.
'A Man Escaped' comes with a French Uncompressed Monaural track that sounds quite good for its age. As is sometimes the case with tracks this old, there can be considerable amounts of hissing or scratches on the audio, but none of that is present here.
In keeping with the simplicity of the film, there is not much of a musical score, or anything in the way resonant sound effects. Still, when music does present itself, it is rich, clear and distinct. Similarly, the dialogue is always very crisp and easily understood. The flat intonation of Lt. Fontaine never sounds dull, or otherwise muffled. Instead, all the voices on the audio mix come through evenly and distinctly.
This is a film that simply relies on the audio to present the first-person narration and little else. Thankfully, the LCPM 1.0 does this with great precision.
'A Man Escaped' combines the thrilling, methodical aspects of great prison break dramas with the artfulness of Robert Bresson's sometimes spare filmmaking techniques, resulting in a film that is relentlessly exhilarating and entertaining to this day. The Criterion edition has given the image a gorgeous transfer that leaves the film looking better than it ever has in previous releases. The highlight here, however, may be the three extensive documentaries provided with the disc. For those who already are familiar with Bresson's work, or those looking for a crash-course in his distinctive style of filmmaking, these supplemental features will be a real treat. This disc comes highly recommended.