(director/writer: Jacques Becker; cinematographer: Ghislain Cloquet; editor: Marguerite Renoir; cast: Marc Michel (Claude Gaspard), Michel Constantin (Geo Cassid), Raymond Meunier (Monsignore), Jean Keraudy (Roland Darban), Philippe Leroy (Manu Borelli), André Bervil (Warden), Catherine Spaak (Nicole); Runtime: 83; PlayArt/Filmsonor/Titanus; 1960-France/Italy-in French with English subtitles)
“This was Jacques Becker’s last film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Set entirely in the Sante prison in 1947 this based-on-fact, intriguingly detailed escape film rivals Bresson’s A Man Escaped for intensity and character development. This thriller is so magnificently staged, building on the tension ordinarily found in such a confining place and magnifying it tenfold. Each prisoner must dig within himself for answers to why he is in prison and he must also dig inside the prison cell down to the sewer, if he wishes to escape.

Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel) is a clean-cut, handsome, well-mannered 27-year-old, accused by his slightly older, rich wife, of trying to murder her during an argument over money as he tried to take the shotgun away from her and it accidently went off hitting her in the shoulder. He is charged with a pre-meditated manslaughter attempt, something that can get him 10-years in the slammer if convicted.

When Claude is transferred into a cellblock made up of hardened inmates because his cell is undergoing repairs he is met with suspicion by his four new cellmates, who are planning an escape and do not want an outsider to join them. All the sounds heard in the cell are the ones you would normally hear in a prison. The viewer gets the feeling what prison life is like because there was no background music to take your mind off where you were and by going through in precise real-time movements the daily prison grind. Also, there were the constant searches of the food parcels the men received, with the guards slicing up the rice puddings parcels.

The men cunningly grill Claude, with Monsignore (Meunier) taking the I-can-be-your-friend approach, while Manu (Leroy) and Roland (Keraudy) do not readily open up to him. They are still unsure if Claude will get a long enough sentence to chance the escape or if they can actually trust him. While Michel Constantin (Geo) questions him about his wife, getting from him that he was having an affair with his wife’s 17-year-old sister, Nicole (Spaak), which is probably the real reason the argument took place.

There is something about Claude that makes him different from the others, he’s just someone you don’t feel right about. Maybe he comes off as too cunningly manipulative in his contact with others to be thought of as a true friend. Yet Claude fits in so well with his new cellmates by not calling attention to himself and acting grateful for their quiet acceptance of him, that it is easy to see how he could be readily accepted by the men.

That the warden seems to like Claude and after a few encounters over minor disciplinary matters actually takes an interest in his case, which makes the other prisoners take notice and become suspicious. But the prisoners decide to go on with their plans, thinking it is too late to turn back now. They have accepted Claude as one of them and feel that he has done his part so far in helping them dig a tunnel, and has even shared with them the food parcels he has received.

On the night of the planned escape, Claude is called into the warden’s office and told that his wife has dropped the charges against him. But he stays with the warden for 2 hours, allowing the men to realize that something is up as no prisoner stays that long to chat with the warden; but it is too late, he has already betrayed them to gain for himself a reduced sentence.

This was Jacques Becker’s last film; he died shortly after the film was released. What he has created in this thriller is a marvel in simplicity and understated relationships, showing how uncertain it is to trust an outsider with your life. That the prisoners, in someway, understood Claude’s flawed character and could accept his reason for betrayal; though, he would never be safe in their company again. This is readily seen on the hardened expressions they have as as the guards icily take him to another cell, as they mockingly shout “Poor little Claude.”