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Hole, The (1960)
Genre: Crime Drama Thriller (France)
Starring: Marc Michel, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy (The Night Porter),
Directed By: Jacques Becker (Touchez pas au grisbi • Casque d'or)
Overview: The Hole is based on the true story of five men as they attempt to dig their way out of a Parisian prison in 1947.
The Hole is, at first glance, a fairly standard prison-break film: a bunch of guys, a chance at escape with a focus on the process by which these prisoners dig may not seem like something exceptional enough to warrant being in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. The Hole, however has much to set it apart. From the simple fact that it’s a beautifully restored Criterion Collection Janus film, to the unique dynamic these inmates have with each other and their jailers, to the interesting character developments and sub-plots, to the enthralling cinematic style, Becker’s French film, Le trou, is one worthy of exploration - both for cinema history’s sake and for a genuinely good time.
We begin by being introduced to Claude Gaspard (Marc Michel), an amiable young inmate who’s being transferred to a new cell - already filled to capacity with four other men. Naturally I expected this whole scene to be full of chest-bumping bravado, one where these four prisoners would set house rules for the new worthless slag invading their space. Imagine my surprise when Becker’s script of José Giovanni’s novel took a far more humanitarian approach. The four prisoners, upset at the reduced space, complain politely to the guards rather than to Claude. Gaspard, for his part, gladly shares his food with the men – who accept it as a gift. I found this to be a refreshing way to move towards the next act, to accept that these people begin with respect for one another. The Hole goes further still. Surprisingly, refreshingly, the guards, the chiefs - even the warden – have a healthy and respectful relationship with the men in their prisons. There’s violence, but it isn’t shown in the way that we’re used to seeing in American contemporary prison films and television. Paris’s Santé prison is filled with men acting as men do rather than in extremes of pervasive fear or mad with the wrath of caged animals. This dynamic sets a unique mood that lets us immerse ourselves in the tension of the digging and the plan of escape rather than the tension of the characters who would do harm or be victimized by those around them.
The other men in the cell include the jolly and philosophic Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier), and the amusingly lazy and laisser-faire Geo Cassine (Michel Constantin). The strong and well-respected Manu Borelli (Philippe Leroy) often leads them. Their plan of escape is led by the older, calculating Roland Darbant (Jean Keraudy). Jean comes close to stealing the show through his grand sincerity. He’s an actor with a tirelessly watchful and cautious eye. His two missing fingers add a delicious subtext to his character. He’s a natural, which is not surprising since he was one of the men who inspired the novel – a novel based on the hole that Jean Keraudy and four other men dug in 1947. It was genius for Jacques Becker to include Jean in his film.
These five men aren’t quite incarcerated. Rather they’re all either awaiting their final sentencing or the results of appeals. They all face long jail terms and need to hurry in their attempt to dig their way free of prison before they’re taken to their final destinations. This adds yet another element of tension - these men can’t take weeks to plan this carefully, they have mere days. From here The Hole includes snippets of character development and other prison drama, but these serve as short breaks amidst the lion’s share that is the digging, the logistics and the exploration of getting out, and it’s where The Hole shines. The often wordless way by which these five men work, and the cinematic focus that Jacques Becker places on that process, does an excellent job of putting us there - where the action is, in our face. One of the most memorable scenes is when our men begin their dig. With a metal bedpost and a lookout, they try to break a hole in the floor. The camera’s lens fixes itself on the slab of unrelenting concrete for minutes at a time. We watch a tense, slow progression. We can’t help but notice that time is going by, that the risk of getting caught is ramping up and that the banging is too loud to be safe for much longer. Becker routinely uses these real-time, suspenseful shots effectively throughout the film, creating some truly memorable and exciting scenes.
Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 8 Mood: 9
Overall Rating: 84% (Profound)
Being Criterion, The Hole may not find a grand audience in the mainstream. It’s not full of fast-paced dramatic action in the same way that we’re accustomed to seeing in Hollywood cinema. For the rest of us, however, with a visual storytelling style very reminiscent of The Wages of Fear, this gorgeous black-and-white film has a wonderful way of locking us in the moment, leaving us completely enthralled in the stress and physical exertion these men are going through to be free.