Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped) (1956)
Director: Robert Bresson.
Starring: François Leterrier (Lieutenant Fontaine), Charles Le Clainche (François Jost), Maurice Beerblock (Blanchet), Roland Monod (Le Pasteur), Jacques Ertaud (Orsini), Jean Paul Delhumeau (Hebrard), Roger Treherne (Terry), Jean Philippe Delamarre (Prisoner No, 110), César Gattegno (Le Prisonnier X), Jacques Oerlemans (Chief Warder), Klaus Detlef Grevenhorst (German Intelligence Officer), Leonhard Schmidt (Le Convoyeur).
a French Resistance man is captured and thinks only of escaping from the Nazis
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Lyon, 1943. German-occupied France. In the back seat of a car a Frenchman who works with the French Resistance waits for his chance to escape from the car. He is on his way to prison. The Frenchman waits and waits until he can get the best opportunity. The car slows down and the man opens the door and makes a run for it. The Germans, however, have a back-up car and they chase after and catch the escapee. He is taken back to his original seat, but this time he is handcuffed. He is also knocked on the head a couple of time with a pistol. When they reach the prison, they throw the man, bleeding from his head wound, into a cell and lock the door.
Fontaine feels as though someone is watching him so he doesn’t dare move. When he thinks it’s safe he starts cleaning himself up a little. He wonder why didn’t they just shoot him to death when he tried to make a break for it. He thinks: "I would have preferred immediate execution." For just a moment he cries. He goes to sleep.
The next day a guard has to wake him up because he was sleeping so soundly. He pretends to be very weak and then wonders if the little trick saved his life because shortly after having taken him out of his cell, they throw him back in.
The man, named Fontaine, can look out a window onto a big courtyard. He sees three men in suits walking back and forth across the yard. He gets the attention of one of the fellows, who is named Terry. Fontaine wants to know if he can get messages out and Terry tells him he knows a way.
A guard fetches Fontaine and takes him to a place with water faucets where he is able to clean the blood off himself more thoroughly. Back in the cell he starts tapping on the wall in order to communicate with his neighbor. The fellow is a 19 year old French blacksmith who killed a German during a brawl and who is now awaiting execution.
With some string from Terry and his own handkerchief, Fontaine rigs up a way to lower the string and the handkerchief to Terry. Terry puts a pencil and some writing paper in the handkerchief which Fontaine then hauls up to his cell. Fontaine considers the possibility that by communicating to others he might be putting both himself and his group at risk. But he decides to risk it. Fontaine next asks for a pin, which Terry promptly gets for him from the women’s section of the prison. Following the instructions from his neighbor, he uses the pin to remove his handcuffs. Later he shows Terry that his handcuffs are off.
Fontaine goes to a front office and the official there tells him to promise him that he won’t try to escape again. Fontaine says he promises. Now he receives his first meal in four days.
Fontaine studies the courtyard, the buildings around it and the activities there. At times he has to hear the weapons firing coming from the place of execution. But his neighbor at least is still alive.
The head guard comes to Fontaine’s cell to move him from the first floor to the third floor. His new cell is number 110. He taps out a message to a neighbor, Blanchet, but the man doesn’t answer. The guard blows a whistle and the food is delivered to the cells. When the guards open the cell doors so the men can empty their pails and wash up, Fontaine meets the neighbor. He is an old man with white hair, who has pretty much given up on the thought of escape. After their short break from their cells, they are taken back to serve out the rest of their 24 hours in their cells. Fontaine thinks there are about 100 prisoners in total.
Fontaine figures out that he can use a shank made from a spoon to scratch out the joints holding three of the door panels in place, thereby allowing himself to get out of his cell. While working he is constantly in fear of being caught.
One day Terry talks to Fontaine through his cell door. They are moving him to another place. What puzzles Fontaine is how did Terry avoid the guards to get up to the third floor. Terry tells him that his neighbor from the first floor was shot two days ago. This news leaves Fontaine in despair for awhile.
A new inmate arrives. His name is Pastor de Leyris, a man of the cloth. Fontaine immediately likes the guy. Fontaine continues working on the three door panels. The guy in the cell across the way from his cell plays the part of lookout for Fontaine. When the lookout suddenly is silent, Fontaine plugs up the holes in the door joints.
He sees his lookout again and starts back on the door work. He gets his spoon shank stuck in the door and has to make another spoon shank to free the first one. He breaks off a small part of the door frame and carefully has to put it back in place to prevent discovery.
Fontaine tries to cheer up Blanchet but without much success. Fontaine learns that one of their fellow prisoners was actually denounced to the Germans by his own wife. The guy turns out to be none other than the lookout, who is named Orsini.
After one month’s work Fontaine is able to get through the hole in the door made by removing the three door panels. At night he roams the corridor a bit. He talks to Blanchet through the door, but Blanchet can hardly believe it.
The next day Orsini says to Fontaine: "Take me!" Blanchet warns Fontaine that he won’t make it. At night Fontaine climbs up a pipe to the skylight. He finds that this will give him access to the roof. Fontaine writes up his escape plan and gives it to Orsini. Once Orsini reads it, he is to destroy it.
Fontaine figures that twelve meters of rope is what he needs. He is able to get 40 meters of strong wire from the wire mattress holder in his jail cell. Later he gets a sack and rips it into long ribbons He then folds these ribbons tightly to make a stronger material. He then twists the material.
Orsini has a simpler plan. He gives Fontaine his plan on a piece of paper. Fontaine reads the plan and then destroys the paper. He later decides that Orsini’s plan is no good.
Orsini is taken out of his cell for questioning. When he returns he tells Fontaine that they are freeing him. A doubtful Fontaine asks him if he really thinks he can trust the Germans. Orsini believes he can. More executions take place in the prison. Fontaine has to lay low for several days because he and the other prisoners are being too closely watched.
One day Orsini just makes a run to escape. In a matter of hours he is back in his cell. The guards hit him a few times before leaving him alone. Fontaine learns that the rope broke at the second wall. He is going to need hooks on the ends of some of the ropes, if he is going to make a successful escape.
Orsini is taken out of his cell and executed.
Fontaine breaks the glass from a frame in order to get access to the steel framing material. Out of the frame he makes three hooks.
All the prisoners are brought together to be told that three inmates have recently been shot for sneaking letters out of the prison. So all prisoners now have to surrender their pencils. Starting tomorrow all cells will be searched. If a pencil is found the owner will be executed. When the guards come to Fontaine’s cell he just tells them that he does not have a pencil even though he does have one.
A package of clothing is delivered to Fontaine. He cuts nearly all the clothing up into ribbons in order to make more rope. One of the ropes will be used to provide a sort of bridge linking two of the building roofs. Blanchet gives him one of his blankets which he proceeds to turn into rope.
The cells are filling up with new prisoners. One of the men on the third floor mentions to Pastor that Fontaine’s file isn’t good. Pastor says they must warn Fontaine. If he is going to escape, he better do it soon. But Fontaine is holding out for a partner in the escape attempt. One of the prisoners who Fontaine tries to recruit tells him that his plan is pure fantasy.
Fontaine goes for a car ride to see a German big shot. He learns that he is to be shot. Fontaine is then taken back to his cell. He fears that all his efforts may prove in vain.
Fontaine gets a break. He gets a roommate. He is only 16 years old and is named Jost. Fontaine asks him what he is in for and Jost says that they told him he was a deserter, which he denies. Fontaine doesn’t know if he can trust him, so he asks a lot of questions to get more information from him while giving Jost virtually nothing. He also figures that he has only two options: take Jost along or kill him and he doesn’t want to have to kill him.
Fontaine gives Pastor a note containing information on what Fontaine wants done if he does not succeed in his escape attempt. He tears Jost’s mattress up to make more rope. The escape is on and Jost is going along. They both manage easily to get onto the roof. But walking on the roof is slow going because the gravel there makes a lot of noise when walked on. They have to walk only when a train passes by, which is fairly frequently. It takes them a full twenty minutes just to walk over to the edge overlooking the big courtyard.
Fontaine looks over the edge and sees a guard walking back and forth. He decides to wait for the changing of the guard to see if the routine is the same. It is. And it’s past 1 a.m. already. Fontaine figures he is just going to have to kill the guard. He lets himself down a rope. When the right moment comes, accompanied by the noises of a passing train, Fontaine kills the German guard. Jost descends the rope. Both men run to the next wall. Fontaine gives Jost a boost up and Jost gets onto the roof. He lets down a rope and Fontaine climbs up and gets onto the roof.
They look out over a much smaller courtyard. There are four guard shacks at each of the corners of the courtyard, but they are unmanned. While they figure out what to do, a bicyclist comes riding by. His job is to keep circling the one building checking for anything suspicious. The clock strikes 4 a.m. and their time is running out. Fontaine and Jost throw a hook attached to a rope over to the next roof. They lock their feet around the rope and using their arms pull themselves across to the other while hanging down like trussed up pigs being taken to a luau.
From the final roof the men use their last rope to let themselves down the outer wall of the prison. They are free. They scurry along as fast as they can without running.
If you like Mission Impossible (an old show by now), you will probably like this one. The emphasis is primarily on how our hero figures out a way to escape from a German prison. The ideas are quite ingenious and pretty complicated, but I’m not the kind of guy who likes an emphasis on technology and methodology of escape. The guy was definitely clever, but I would rather watch the activities of a free and active French Resistance person as opposed to one in a German prison. I would suggest watching one of the other many films on the French Resistance.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
L' Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) (1969) -- the many travails of the French Resistance
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