To say this is the story of an attempted prison breakout does absolutely no justice to Le Trou, one of the great films of prison and of men working together.
Four men share a small cell in France's Santé Prison. There is Roland (Jean Keraudy), accepted by the others as their leader, a taciturn man who plans; Manu (Philippe Leroy), thoughtful but not one to let things slide by; Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier), more easy-going than the others; and Geo (Michel Constantin), who likes to prod and can use his fists. They all are tough men. Each is facing at least ten years in prison. Suddenly placed in their cell is the young Claude Gaspar (Marc Michel), something of an innocent who is charged with attempting to murder his wife. The four men now have a problem. Do they bring Gaspar into their secret? They plan to escape by digging through the concrete floor of their cell and into a sewer outlet, then through the dank basements of the prison, through another sewer line and out onto the streets. They have been planning this job meticulously and now are just about to start. They have no choice, so they bring Claude in. He agrees.
For the next two hours we watch these men, whose lives are controlled by the prison guards, hammer and tear through every obstacle they meet. They have to feign sleep and create dummies for the night-time prison checks. They make tools and a key, even a sand timer to tell time by. All the while they take turns pounding their way through stone walls and concrete floors. Becker's camera makes sure we see that the actors themselves are doing this brutal, grunting work.
During all this punishing labor we begin to suspect that something isn't right. On one level, we know this is a movie and there can't be a simple, happy ending. But we also start noticing things. Someone may ask a question that seems unnecessary. Someone forgets a jacket and turns back to get it. It's apparent that Claude Garspar hasn't reached the same level of trust within the group that the other four have, but is this significant? All the while the clock is ticking and the men have no time; they must break through and get out before they are discovered.
Part of the power of this movie is that there are no moral targets set up for us by the director and writer. There are no brutal guards and no brutal prisoners, just men doing what they either are paid to do or told to do. In other words, there is no prison melodrama. Le Trou also seems to move at the pace of the five men. They have to keep going and we have to keep up with them. We see how they plan, how they improvise, how they do things. We also see how they have to live together in a small cell, brushing their teeth, urinating in an open toilet, being shaved in the hallway, sharing food packages and hunks of prison bread, undergoing cell searches with no warnings.
It helps a great deal that Becker did not cast professional actors. We don't know these men. They have no film history, only what they do and say right now. The ending is not particularly bleak, unless you're a student of human nature, but because we've come to know these men it packs an emotional wallop.
The film was based on an attempted prison escape in France in 1947. Jean Keraudy, who plays Roland Darbant, was one of the prisoners who participated. After his release he earned his living as an auto mechanic. This is the only movie he ever made. Two of the other men who attempted the escape with him were hired by Becker as consultants. Much of the film was shot in the Santé Prison. This was Jacques Becker's last movie. The director of Casque d'Or and Touchez pas au Grisbi died of a heart attack two weeks after completing the film.