Friday, May 12, 2017

A Man Escaped (1956)

Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut, France, 101 minutes
Director: Robert Bresson
Writers: Andre Devigny, Robert Bresson
Photography: Leonce-Henri Burel
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Editor: Raymond Lamy
Models: Francois Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, Roland Monod, Jacques Ertaud, Jean-Paul Delhumeau, Roger Treherne

Like Au Hasard Balthazar and Pickpocket, which precede A Man Escaped in the top 100 of the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, director and screenwriter Robert Bresson's picture largely succeeds because it latches onto certain concrete circumstances. In the first two it's the life of a beast and the criminal art of pickpocketing, respectively, and in A Man Escaped it is the amazingly painstaking escape of a Frenchman from a German prison during World War II, based on true events. In fact, though I don't like it as much as the other two, in many ways A Man Escaped is the one that's most getting right down to the business of Bresson's major theme: the gyrations of the soul imprisoned in the flesh. That prison is perfectly externalized by the Montluc prison in Lyon, France, where the movie was shot and from which the original true-life escape was made.

As usual, some allowances must be made for changing times. The privations of the prison may look to us now more like a very bad dorm. Everyone's clothes are elaborately dirty but otherwise these prisoners don't look too much the worse for wear. Yes, we often hear shocking bursts of gunfire, suggesting executions (as most of the prisoners believe), or perhaps escape attempts cut down. But we actually see very little violence. The prisoners and guards seem mostly docile and without the air of aggression projected in modern prison scenes. Guards here are peevish and rude more than hostile, and inmates mostly just sullen. This is more of an existential imprisonment. It doesn't look like any kind of place I'd want to spend time, but it's preferable to the prisons we see in popular culture these days, where the preoccupation is rape, followed by random death by shiv. No one gives any thought to rape here, and the closest thing to a shiv is used only to help engineer the escape.

That would be an iron spoon that our dogged hero, Andre Devigny (Francois Leterrier), manages to keep back from his meal one day. He then spends several days sharpening the end of the handle against the concrete floor of his cell. Once the handle is sharp enough he spends weeks and months working at the wood panels in the door of his cell until he has found a way to make a hole big enough to crawl through. He can return to his cell and replace the panels and no one is the wiser. He sneaks around at night to reconnoiter, and also shares information with other prisoners when he can, working out escape plans. His neighbors occasionally complain to him, saying it will get them all in trouble, but they also respect his spirit and support his intention.

Remember, this is all based on a true story, and 75 years ago prison security was not entirely what it is now. I suspect we don't see as many wooden doors used for cells. Still, it's an impressive feat on Devigny's part—of patience and nerve if nothing else. He uses virtually all the materials in his cell, from the mattress, pillows, blankets, bed, and lighting fixtures, converting them into ropes and hooks (in fact, the ropes and hooks used in the movie are actually the original ones Devigny made). The real strength of the movie is the way it simply observes his intricate, speculative, and dangerous work. He could be caught at any time by a thorough search of his cell or on his nighttime forays, a situation that goes on for weeks if not months.

The possibility of a successful escape is always remote. Yet Devigny never seems to waver in his dedication. So in many ways A Man Escaped is a movie about faith, if with something more of a European existential brand. No one is particularly praying for or expecting supernatural aid here, except perhaps those who have truly given up. Devigny's faith is composed in part of his utter rejection of the German occupation. But it's actually broader and more generalized than that, more like a belief or principle that living free is the only way to live and, if imprisoned—by anyone—then working to live free again is the only way to live.

The unusual title offers more clues. It can sound a bit comically like a news headline—"A man escaped!" But I've always taken "escaped" more as a modifier, or part of a passive statement implying outside agency at work, parallel to, say, Prometheus Unbound. The French translates literally as "One sentenced to death escaped," which doesn't really help. Then there's the alternate title, The Wind Blows Where it Wishes (dispensed with for UK/US release), which is from a New Testament Bible verse: "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." That's something about free will, according to people on the internet.

In the end, when Devigny has finalized his plan and is trying to find the courage to choose a night and carry it out, another prisoner is put in his cell—prison conditions are starting to get more crowded. At this point A Man Escaped becomes a very good suspense movie. This is in spite of Bresson's usual best efforts to foil cinematic expectations, formally resisting anything that might be classed as entertainment. But what else could he do with this story?

First there is the worry of whether Devigny can trust his new cellmate, and then of course the escape itself, which is full of small mishaps and all kinds of luck and basically takes all night, what with dealing with the guards and climbing around the walls and such. It predates by years the sight of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint clambering Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest, let alone the dogged Steve McQueen zipping off on a motorcycle in The Great Escape. But it has the same charge. A Man Escaped ends at the exact moment of liberation, followed as usual by a black screen and a few minutes of very loud music, in this case Mozart's Great Mass in C minor, the music of choice all through, when there is music. I swear that, outside of those few minutes toward the end, I was never entertained.

1 comment:

  1. "Devigny's faith... is more like a belief or principle that living free is the only way to live and, if imprisoned—by anyone—then working to live free again is the only way to live." Enlightenment fundamentalist? Declaration of Independence devotee? Doggedly can-do libertarian moron? Also enjoy your attribution, "according to people on the internet." Nice write-up.