DVD: Man Escaped, A / Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (1956)

February 26, 2012 | By

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Film: Excellent/ DVD Transfer: Very Good/ DVD Extras: Standard

Label: New Yorker Video/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: May 25, 2004

Genre: Suspense / Drama / Prison Escape

Synopsis: A French resistance fighter is determined to breal out from a Nazi prison before his execution date is set.

Special Features:  n/a




Cannes Critics Award Winner for Best Film, 1957

Much has been written about Robert Bresson’s 1956 film as high film art (it is) and as a sublime example of the director’s meticulous style, but what newbies to the film will discover is its contemporary feel: tightly plotted with not a single wasted shot or ounce of unnecessary padding, A Man Escaped is the prototypical prison escape film that transcends many subsequent imitations because specific plot turns are directly tied to the lead character’s psychological needs.

Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) may be a repeat escapee – en route to the prison, he makes his first dash for freedom but is recaptured and immediately shackled (which frankly ought to have been done in the first place) – but it’s clear he can only last so long before the gravity of any long-term incarceration starts to whittle away at his iron constitution. Even when brutally beaten by the Nazi guards with pipes and whatever else is packed into a rickety shed, Fontaine is playing a role for his own benefit, exaggerating his pain and ailments so there’s a consistency to the guards’ perception of another broken French resistance fighter, awaiting an eventual trial and likely death sentence.

Fontaine also keeps all of his key senses wide open, absorbing the strengths and weaknesses of his environment, the guards’ routines, their habits which announce their approach up the stairs, and the pecking order of fellow inmates with whom he doesn’t befriend, but remains collegial, since there’s a benefit in helping each other out, just in case a worthy escape plan is hatched.

Locked in his first cell, he makes fast contact in the yard with sympathetic resistance fighters who manage a transfer of food, pencil, paper, and other verboten goods by rope and sack, and Fontaine mines them and his unseen neighbour in the adjoining cell for further details about life inside and out.

When he’s moved to a new cell a floor above, Fontaine fashions a tool which he uses to enable the meticulous removal of a door panel – initially a kind of personal, special project to kill time, keep up hope, and maintain an ongoing belief in his own superiority over the Nazis – but the endeavor eventually becomes part of his escape plan when he gleans fresh information of what lies between the multiple prison walls.

His sense of security and need to think fast is tested when he’s forced to bunk with a young prisoner (Charles Le Clainche) who may or may not be a plant, or a resistance fighter bribed to extract information from Fontaine.

The decision to escape ultimately hinges on Fontaine’s inevitable death sentence by the prison judges, and the film’s final third is a taught action sequence without action: it’s just two men who may or may not be allied in the same goal towards freedom, and the simple foibles that lie beyond each secure prison wall and narrow courtyard.

Bresson may have crafted first and foremost a character study in prison psychology (the WWII setting is irrelevant, in the sense the drama could occur in any country at any time), but it’s also a perfect template for the prison break sub-genre: each scene either encourages or threatens Fontaine’s situation, and the success or failure of his escape, not to mention the fidelity of his accomplice, remains up in the air until the very end.

Bresson also stays away from onscreen violence, keeping his camera trained on the actors after an event. Fontaine’s beating at the beginning is never seen, and neither is the killing of a patrol guard; in Bresson’s scheme, more vital is the way violence unnerves an individual, and has the potential to weaken resilience.

Innate to the sub-genre is the actual escape scheme, which includes skulking at night, passing notes, and the ingenious manufacture of gear and tools from prison proscribed articles – aspects that became equally important in perhaps the second-best prison escape drama around, Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

With no stars (the cast is generally comprised of non-professional actors), a sparse score, and the use of real locations, A Man Escaped feels like a docudrama due to the various minutiae that make up its look, sound, and feel. (Indeed, Bresson had spent time in a German POW camp during WWII, and the film was adapted from André Devigny’s memoirs, with the author acting as consultant during production.)

Much of the drama occurs in locked environments, and with rare exceptions, most scenes occur inside Fontaine’s prison cell. Never a dull moment, it’s a fine example where the psychology of a character can drive a film’s plot – but only when crafted so carefully by an obsessive, uncompromising artist.

Bresson began as a painter and later moved into screenwriting, but he directed a scant 14 films between 1934-1983: Public Affairs (1934), Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), Diary of a Country Priest (1951), A Man Escape (1956), Pickpocket (1959), The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), Au hazard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), A Gentle Woman (1969), Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), Lancelot du Lac (1974), Le diable probablement (1977), and L’argent (1983).

Star Francois Leterrier continued a career in film, moving from second unit direction to writing and directing in 1961 with Les mauvais coups. His best-known work is probably the unexpectedly character-centric third chapter in France’s popular erotic series, Goodbye, Emmanuelle (1977), and the French-Quebec TV co-production L’île (1987).



© 2012 Mark R. Hasan


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