I haven’t seen all thirteen feature films directed by the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1999), but I have seen most of his major works, including The Diary of a Young Priest (1951), Pickpocket (1959), and Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966). My overwhelming favorite is his extraordinary, low-key thriller A Man Escaped, based on the true story of a man who, yes, escaped, from a Nazi prison in Lyon in 1943. Francois Leterrier has the title role, a Resistance fighter who, from his tiny cell, plans and carries out an odds-defying exit.
The plot is simple, variations of which have been used in dozens of action movies, but the execution is ingeniously and meticulously crafted, making you feel not only as if you are sharing the intimacy of Leterrier’s cell but also as if you have crept inside his mind. With stark black-and-white cinematography, and consisting of many short scenes ending in blackouts, the film builds a phenomenal tension, remarkable not only for its suspense but its relative quiet. The thrills come in its realism, in its no-frills approach, becoming all the more gripping for its lack of sensationalism. Call it an art-house genre picture.
Leterrier has wonderful eyes, so large, so sad. It is quite enthralling to watch him use his wits and ingenuity with the only materials at hand in his cell: a spoon, a mattress, bed springs, and some clothing. Even after he’s ready to go, he waits and waits for just the right moment. The film’s deeply satisfying final fifteen minutes are the escape itself. Bresson’s film is something that many other great movies simply are not. It is flawless.