A Man Escaped is a 1956 prison break film that eschews the clichés of that subgenre in favor of a very deliberately paced meditation on the human need for freedom. The full original French title is Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut, which translates to the rather unwieldy A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth. Written and directed by Robert Bresson, the film stars non-actor François Leterrier as Fontaine, a French Resistance fighter awaiting execution in a Nazi prison during World War II. The Criterion Collection has recently restored this film and the resulting Blu-ray makes one of Bresson’s masterworks more readily available (though it’s not the first Blu-ray appearance of the film—Gaumont released it in 2010).
The plot is exceedingly simple. Fontaine is stuck in a small prison cell and works obsessively to devise a way out. He saves rudimentary tools like spoons to chip away at his cell door (good thing it’s made out of wood). A pencil serves as means to color in the lighter, unstained cracks in the wooden slats. Sympathetic French men in the prison yard are able to provide him with additional useful items, including rope and a safety pin (for unlocking his ever-present handcuffs). He communicates with his neighbors by tapping on the walls. One fellow prisoner urges him to stop, fearing their entire floor will be punished if Fontaine’s plans are discovered.
Be forewarned if you happen to go into A Man Escaped completely cold: this is not an action film or thriller. Sedate and glacially-paced, it’s a study of prolonged confinement. Fontaine knows that he will die if he does nothing. His impending execution is unavoidable, unless he can get out. We spend an hour and a half watching his quiet, focused determination to alter his fate. The addition of a teenaged cellmate, François Jost (Charles Le Clainche), late in the story only momentarily shakes Fontaine. He simply adjusts his mission to include Jost. The boy he initially viewed as a possible hindrance becomes a worthwhile assistant. Fontaine will let nothing stand in his way and that’s why the film is able to draw viewers in with so little actually occurring onscreen.
There’s nothing fancy about the black-and-white cinematography by Léonce-Henri Burel, but Criterion has done a great job showcasing the simple beauty of the imagery. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 2K transfer was struck from the original camera negative. Clarity is quite strong and Criterion has done its usual exemplary job of cleaning up the source. The uncompressed LPCM mono mix is free of flaws or distractions, offering the sparse soundtrack in pristine quality.
Criterion has provided a number of useful supplements, all relating to the filmography of Robert Bresson. “The Road to Bresson” is an hour-long piece that really examines Bresson’s approach to filmmaking and his distinguishing stylistic traits. “The Essence of Forms” is a 45-minute film ported over from a previous Blu-ray edition. This one explores Bresson’s career via interviews with other filmmakers, including the star of A Man Escaped, François Leterrier (who became primarily a director following Escaped). “Bresson: Without a Trace” is a 68-minute episode of the French TV show Cineastes de notre temps during which Bresson granted his first on-camera interview.
A Man Escaped is based on the real-life experiences of André Devigny, imprisoned in the infamous Fort Montluc prison that was utilized by the Gestapo between 1942 and ’44. Bresson sought to tell his story on film with as little elaboration as possible. It’s a story well worth watching.