How to dismantle your door: A Man Escaped (1956)

[Image: From A Man Escaped (1956), courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

Breaking Out and Breaking In: A Distributed Film Fest of Prison Breaks and Bank Heists—co-sponsored by BLDGBLOG, Filmmaker Magazine, and Studio-X NYC—continued last week with Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956). Spoilers ahead!

Bresson's film tells the story of Fontaine—a French prisoner held by Nazis in a prison in occupied Lyon—and it operates through the "close scrutiny of salient details," in Roger Ebert's words. Fontaine himself becomes an avid student of the prison interior, always looking askance for points of weakness. This has the effect of explicitly foregrounding the space of confinement in which Fontaine is held, including, as we'll see, the objects in the cell with him, deemphasizing characterization in favor of an intense focus on architectural setting. Ebert continues:
In this way, we watch Fontaine examine his cell. We know it as well as he does. We see how he stands on a shelf to look out a high, barred window. We see how the food plates enter and leave, and how the guards can see him through a peep hole. We see the routine as prisoners are marched to morning wash-up.
Amongst these daily routines, we also watch Fontaine slip a note into a fellow prisoner's pocket. What does the note say? "The exit route from the building and how to dismantle your door," Fontaine whispers.

[Image: From A Man Escaped (1956), courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

As usual, I want to focus only on specific spatial details, in keeping with the premise of Breaking Out and Breaking In, so I'll just make two quick points.

1) Breaking out, in A Man Escaped, occurs through the strategic dismantling and reassembly of all designed objects that aren't architecture. Blankets are cut down to strips then rewoven into rope, finally wrapped and strengthened with wire from the bedframe. The hinges of a small cupboard door are bent and refashioned into grappling hooks. A mere spoon—then another—is sharpened to a chisel with which to cut through the soft wood of the cell door.

It's as if the tools of escape are, in fact, already hidden all around us, disguised as the overlooked equipment of everyday life—the mundane bits of furniture, clothing, and internal ornament that, provided we teach ourselves how to reassemble them, will lead to an unparalleled state of post-architectural liberation. Put another way, the limits of architecture are exposed by everything normally stored inside it.

[Image: From A Man Escaped (1956), courtesy of the Criterion Collection].

2) The other obvious detail is the film's overriding non-visual dimension—that is to say, the sound design of solitary confinement.

From the coded coughs of fellow inmates to the banister-tapping approach of a particular guard, and from the reciprocated wall-knocks passed prisoner to prisoner to the soundscape of the final escape itself—with the other-worldly grinding gears of a patrol bicycle and the marching feet on gravel that betray a guard who the escapees might not otherwise have seen—the prison is more an acoustic environment than a visual one. Even the timing of Fontaine and his last-minute assistant, as they scamper across the prison rooftop, is coincident with the passing of a nearby train, using the sonic effects of urban infrastructure as camouflage for their actions.

They thus navigate from ring to ring, passing steadily outward, carrying reconstructed ropes made from bedding and forcibly recurved grappling hooks, arming the building's contents against the building itself, disguised by the sounds of a city into which they successfully disappear.

(Earlier: A Prison Camp is for Escaping. Up next: watch Cool Hand Luke on Monday, February 6; for the complete Breaking Out and Breaking In schedule, click here).

Comments are moderated.

If it's not spam, it will appear here shortly!

Anonymous Jimmy Stamp said...

The first shot of A Man Escaped is an image of Fort Montluc, the setting for this claustrophobic tale of escape. That's the only time we see the prison. The rest of film is composed almost exclusively of close-up shots in confined spaces. In Grand Illusion, there were enough reference points --walls, gardens, fences, stairways-- to create a vague mental image of the environment, but not here. Though we get to know the cell and the daily routine quite well, we have absolutely no spatial sense of Montluc; no idea what Fontaine sees when he looks through the bars of his window. We have no idea what his obstacles are until the very end. So in some ways, the world of the viewer is even more limited than that of Fontaine. We are, in a sense, confined. I think this creates an incredible spatial tension in the movie.

But back to the cell. I love the plainness of Fontaine's description: "My cell was less than 3 meters by 2. It was furnished sparsely: a wooden frame with a mattress, two blankets. In a recess by the door, a sanitary pail. And set in the wall, a stone shelf. This shelf enabled me to reach the window." With those two sentences, Fontaine gives us the ingredients of his escape. It's almost like a whodunnit story (maybe a howbrokeout?), challenging us to figure out the method of escape. I like the way you phrased Fontaine's step-by-step sequence of tasks as a "strategic dismantling and reassembly of all designed objects that aren't architecture." This ability to transmogrify the available materials reminds me of a little of Charlie Chaplin, who in many of his films transforms the utilitarian into the performative, repurposing spaces of authority for anarchic play. I'm thinking specifically of the assembly line sequence in Modern Times. In Chaplin's world, it's often the desire for spiritual freedom that inspires him to magically transform objects. Similarly, in A Man Escaped it is literal captivity that inspires the transmogrification of objects. The prisoner sees the world differently and in his hands, as in the hands of the magician, the "designed objects" are plastic, changeable. But Fontaine must believe in these new tools. The old man in the cell next to him tells him: "Have faith in your hooks, your ropes, yourself." These words recall Fontaine's earlier rationale for escape: "To fight. Fight against the walls, my door, against myself." To fight against architecture. Design versus the immutable environment. It's worth noting that, like the characters in the Grand Illusion, the thought of not trying to escape isn't even an option. A prison is for escaping. Architecture as pure obstacle, created to be overcome.

But before he can escape, Fontaine must first acquire an intimate, if highly specific knowledge of the prison - the enemy against which he fights. The best example of this is the 1:1 scale drawing of the parapet that he uses to sculpt his grappling hooks. Fontaine correctly presumes that the exterior wall will be of identical construction to the roof parapet. He uses the logic of the building --or at least its constituent elements-- against itself. It's beautiful.

February 07, 2012 1:03 PM  

Post a Comment