In issue 62 of Senses of Cinema, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster offers a compelling essay on Robert Bresson’s brilliant drama of survival in prison, A Man Escaped, noting that; “For Bresson, the images are everything, along with the unerring precision with which they are edited together to create a world that is hermetically sealed, and unsparingly distanced from the viewer. As always, Bresson’s camera movement is a model of economy and precision; in many instances, the camera lingers on an image for what seems an eternity, to accentuate the tedium and endless waiting of prison life. But what is perhaps most striking about A Man Escaped is that it manages to create an atmosphere of almost unbearable suspense despite the fact that the title gives the basic narrative arc of the film away; the title character of the film does indeed escape his imprisonment, but the means by which he accomplishes this are tortuous indeed.
Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, who escaped from Fort Montlucin Lyonin 1943, during World War II, A Man Escaped tells the story of Fontaine (François Leterrier), a member of the French Resistance who is imprisoned by the Nazis in Montluc prison after an unsuccessful escape attempt. The prison is a forbidding, inhuman structure; indeed, the opening shot of the film shows us a plaque memorialising the 7000 men who died within the prison’s walls during the war. Thus, the basic situation of the film is set up from the outset; for the next 99 minutes, we will be witnesses – in every sense of the word – to one man’s fight for survival against almost insurmountable odds. Fontaine is thrown into a prison cell, and almost immediately begins to strategise an escape plan, despite the enormous risks involved. His plans are deliberate and methodical, but the risks are enormous.
Another prisoner, Orsini (Jacques Ertaud) tries his own escape attempt but fails, and the consequences are severe; a brutal beating and a death sentence. Despite the tedium and monotony of prison life, Fontaine continues in his methodical preparations for escape, only to be told at the last minute that he has been sentenced to death for his Resistance activities. Returned to his cell, Fontaine discovers he has a new companion, François Jost (Charles Le Clainche) a 16-year-old soldier who is supposedly sympathetic to the Nazis. Now Fontaine has a new problem; his escape is nearly imminent, and he has to decide whether to take Jost with him, or to kill him. At length, and after much deliberation, Fontaine decides to trust Jost with the details of his plan. The film ends with their successful escape over the rooftop of the prison, and the two men slip away silently into the night, as A Man Escaped comes to its predestined conclusion.”