Le Trou (The Hole) Review

Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (based on a true story) begins with Gaspard, a young inmate at the Santé Prison, being moved into a cell with four other inhabiting inmates, while repair work takes place in his cell block. Initially wary and only begrudgingly welcoming, they soon, however, divulge their plans of escape. Using the noise created by the construction work to disguise their own operations, they will tunnel down through the bowels of the prison into the sewers, and then to freedom.

Jacques Becker’s final film is a uniquely compelling piece of cinema; it doesn’t merely hold your attention but rather superglues your eyes and ears to the screen. A literal retelling of the true story it’s based on (three of the inmates involved in the incident served as technical advisors), the gritty ultra-realism accounts entirely for the fearsome tension throughout.

Becker doesn’t seem to direct, but simply observe. The viewer connects to the characters through their body language, expressions and words, rather than via more manipulative methods, allowing for a very pure emotional intensity to take hold (not least because one of the actors in the film was one of those involved in the original breakout; two of his cohorts also served as technical advisers on the film).

The danger of discovery and capture by the prison authorities is always around the corner (quite literally in one heart-in-mouth moment) and always very real, so the sense of anticipation and desperation reaches heights most suspense thrillers can only dream of. The physical exertion performed by the original escapees is also carried out by the actors – when the men are smashing through floors and walls one chip at a time in close-up, it’s quite clear that it’s not polystyrene and cardboard they’re dealing with.

Amusing but unconfirmed, is that Jacques Becker, who died two weeks after the film’s completion, supervised the edit and sound mix, despite being almost totally deaf. Impaired or not, he did a superb job. Which, of course, goes without saying for the rest of this magnificent film.

The video

Criterion presents another top-drawer anamorphic transfer, in its correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The 35mm fine-grain master used is in outstanding shape – only a hint of grain shows through, while you’d need a magnifying glass and a great deal of patience to find any dirt or debris. A vast range of tonal greys shines through, especially impressive given the often high-contrast photography. Blacks aren’t quite as deep as they could be sometimes, but it barely affects one’s enjoyment. Detail is pervasively high, without additional digital coaxing such as edge enhancement, and a total lack of shimmering adds to the gorgeous film-like texture. Despite the fact that the 131-minute film could easily fit onto a single-layer disc (with only one subtitle stream and a monaural soundtrack to grapple with), Criterion have upped the ante by placing the film onto an RSDL disc, and so the compression is entirely flawless. Simply excellent quality.

The audio

Well, everything’s accounted for, and the mix sounds accurate. No damage or distortion haunts the track, while only the slightest bit of hiss remains. Everything comes through clean and sharp, though not with as high a fidelity as some mono tracks I’ve come across. Absolutely fine. The disc features newly translated optional subtitles in white with black outline.

The extras

While nothing on the disc is present, a beautifully designed 12-page booklet gives us biographical information on key talent and a few paragraphs on the film’s making from the 1964 US pressbook. Coupled with a very good essay by Chris Fujiwara, it’s as much as you could need to know about the film’s history and Becker himself. Colour bars are available, should you want them.

The packaging is gorgeous and totally in-keeping with the film’s tone and style, and the menus carry this motif on. Chapter stops are set at 18, which are well divided, and all of which are one-word descriptions, all ending in “–ing”.


Le Trou is cinema at its most real and fiercely gripping. Criterion have done us all a favour to exhume it from the vaults, dust it off, and present it in all its glory, for its reputation to finally break out (sic) into the mainstream.

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