#301. A Man Escaped (1956)

I feel cool to’ve made a note while watching A Man Escaped about how much it reminded me of Diary of a Country Priest, which is just as lean and focuses on a solitary man and is propelled by voiceover narration, because I find, now, that they’re directed by the same guy, Robert Bresson, who directed another couple movies ont eh Lst that come later, both of which I’ve seen and neither of which have I liked, but it’s cool to notice that they do all demonstrate a similar voice—which is a concept, incidentally, that I’m only recently getting savvy on when it comes to cinema. Like yeah there are certain kindsa shots and lighting styles where I might say, OK that’s clearly Fritz Lang, David Fincher, Godard—whomever. But now I’m getting a sense of how these attributes all coalesce into a sensibility.

            Bresson likes to show silence, solitude, intimate settings and a person’s deterioration. In Diary of a Country Priest we’re watching the priest, our hero, deteriorate physically. Here, in the very simple story of a man escaping prison, we see, in near silence, the process by which, night-by-night, he takes one more step toward creating and securing a sequence of setups for his escape: chiseling at a door, fucking with a light bulb in the hallway, a window, fashioning a type of makeshift grappling hook. It feels monastic. Maybe it’s just me, but watching these processes as our soft-spoken hero works in silence was strangely exciting. Suspensful, sure, but there’s something about the quiet deliberation with which our story is moving closer and closer to its climax that hoists the movie’s tenson with like the thunk-thunk progression of a rollercoaster up its ramp.

            The reason it’s got a personal resonance is because I’ve always had a fascination with the way that little, monotonous, routinized steps in a process end up cultivating some massive result. Like ten million seemingly innocuous waves slowly reshaping a shoreline. I think it manifests even in this Project: watch a movie, write about it, check it off the List.

            Watch a movie, write about it, check it off the List—three little steps to take me one point farther, and one point farther.

            And on and on, each step taking probably an average of three hours. A huge sprawling Project, it never seems in a day’s work like I’ve made a real dent in it—but after so many days of chiseling I find that, hey, I’m 10% done, 20% done.

            A Man Escaped offers that slowburn gratification and it pays off in the third act when we see our hero actually enact what we’ve seen him planning all along, moving through all of these maneuvers—it’s as gratifying as a checklist getting checked, and is also, I’m guessing, an influence on Oceans Eleven, which is a comedy by contrast to the heavy drama here, and so of course it’s very different in tone and intent, but Oceans follows and expands upon this formula we see here of showing the audience, over 45 minutes, everything that the heroes are going to do—and then they spend the rest of the movie doing it, fulfilling the plan, seeing if it was properly forged and how their pre-established weaknesses and variables will influence the plan.

The hero’s patient assembly and reinforcement of a grappling hook.

            There’s something also existentially gratifying here about the simplicity of it.

            First half of the movie: here’s a man planning an escape.

            Second half of the movie: here’s a man escaping.

            Diary of a Country Priest, now that I think about it, has also got a gratifying kind of existential vibe. We see the Priest getting sicker, sicker, sicker—and then he dies. It’s gradual, the pains accumulate—and then the inevitable happens.

            Not sure what else to say here except that it’s nice to just bask in the reward of a good simple story, well-told. When our hero is forced at the end to murder a guard with his makeshift grappling hook, it achieves something curious: we know that this man is willing to die in order to escape, we know that we’re not on the side of his captors, but when he’s faced with this decision there is a kind of moral question mark in the air. The murder happens off-camera, but I felt a little…tainted afterward.

            Tough to explain.

            Bresson demonstrates minimalist in narrative the way that C.T. Dreyer, with Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet, demonstrates minimalism in design.

            It’s a craft I intend to study.


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