Sunday, July 09, 2017

Le Trou, Donald Westlake, and everything: Atmosphere in noir and elsewhere

"`Don't you see? There's a plan there, but you have to convert it to the real world, to the people you've got and the places you'll be, and all the rest of it. You'd be the auteur."

-- May to Dortmunder in Jimmy the Kid, by Donald Westlake
Photos by Peter Rozovsky for Detectives Beyond Borders.
That photo at right is the closest thing to a noir photo I shot in New York Saturday, and that's only because it's black and white and has some dark shadows. OK, maybe the lack of natural light and the photo's underground setting have something to do with it. Oh, and the walkway in question runs under Times Square, but you might not know that unless I told you or unless you knew New York fairly well. But the point is that noir isn't just a literary form or a fatalistic view of life; it's also atmosphere.

It's Jeanne Moreau wandering through the streets of Paris in the rain looking for her lover in Elevator to the Gallows. It's Alain Delon smoking a cigarette in just about anything; Le Samourai will do for a start. Atmosphere of a different kind was at work in Le Trou, one of two movies that brought me to New York and the Film Forum.

Le Trou ("The Hole") is a 1960 French prison-break drama directed by Jacques Becker, and I suspect that many Americans will find that it doesn't feel like a prison movie. The five (!) prisoners crammed into a small cell at Paris' La Sant√© Prison don't fight or rape each other. Instead, they share the contents of packages they receive from the outside, and they cooperate on an escape plan.  The atmosphere, that is, is one of teamwork rather than confrontation. And Becker fills the movie with the five men digging and reconnoitering and planning without, however, gimmicky attention boosters and false drama and wrong turns and screeching music to tell viewers how they ought to feel. (J. Hoberman's New York Times article touches on some of these questions, with a hat tip to Suzanne Solomon for putting the article in my way.)
 
I included the Westlake snippet above because the coincidence of coming to a discussion of auteur theory just when I was preparing a post about a French movie from 1960 was too good to pass up. But Le Trou may remind viewers of Westlake's comic Dortmunder novels and the Parker heist dramas he wrote as Richard Stark. Parker is a planner and Dortmunder is a planner, and so are Roland and Manu, two of the cellmates who plan the escape in Le Trou. The other three are something like the Kelps and Murches and Grofields and Deverses who fill out the teams that execute Parker's and Dortmunder's plans.

I had some quibbles with Le Trou's ending; see the movie, and we'll talk about it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2017

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2 Comments:

Blogger Cary Watson said...

As I recall the ending was about the cruelty and shame of betrayal rather than the act of escaping. What was your quibble?

July 12, 2017  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gaspard's situation in the closing shots seemed arbitrary to me. He looks condemned to ostracism if not worse at the hands of his fellow prisoners, but left unspoken is what payoff he gets from the warden from his cooperation, which payoff, we have been led to believe, could conceivable lead to his release. That last shot would have worked better had the film not told us that he could expect release any day.

July 12, 2017  

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