A Man Escaped is "based on a true story" - in this case the memoirs of French prisoner of war André Devigny. An opening title tells us 7,000 people died at the Montluc prison at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Director Robert Bresson himself held as a prisoner of war for a year.
The plot of the film is simple. Lt. Fontaine is a member of the French Resistance who is captured by the occupying Nazis. He puts together a plan of escape. Each day, he quietly chisels away at the door with a metal spoon. He puts the panels carefully back in place and covers it with a bathrobe, in case a guard should search his cell.
Another prisoner is shot trying to escape. Fontaine is sentenced to death. And he is given a cellmate, who Fontaine considers killing to keep him from further complicating the escape plan.
Several choices by Bresson keep the film focused, fast-paced and exciting. He famously used non-professional actors in his movies, and here that decision works to push audiences' focus on the action instead of on a face. We see shots of hands making rope and cutting wood and of feet reaching for the ground rather than close-ups of a star sweating.
Likewise, the story is also action-focused. In contrast to the over-produced The Shawshank Redemption, A Man Escaped tells us only the smallest details of Fontaine's crime and nothing of his plans after leaving prison. We know only what we need to know and see what we need to see.
"Watching a film like "A Man Escaped" is like a lesson in the cinema. It teaches by demonstration all the sorts of things that are not necessary in a movie. By implication, it suggests most of the things we're accustomed to are superfluous. I can't think of a single unnecessary shot in "A Man Escaped."" - Roger Ebert
Bresson uses A Man Escaped as a religious story of hope for redemption, and he makes sure the audience knows it. But the film is nowhere as ham-handed about its allegory as Shawshank is. For the most part, Escaped zeroes in on the central drama of any prison escape story:
"...by employing the shot–counter shot rhythm generally used for conversations, Bresson converts Fontaine’s interactions with his cell door into a struggle between protagonist and antagonist." - Tony Pipolo
A Man Escaped is #86 on the 2013 edition of the TSPDT 1,000 list I’m blogging through. I’ve now seen 443.