(Plot discussed in close detail)
Who'd have thought Bresson, he of the austere aestheticism and rigorous philosophy, could make such an effective thriller as A Man Escaped? That opening sequence of Lt. Fontaine about to attempt a break from a car is as superbly timed and edited--with the suspense stretched out into a thin, taut wire--as anything from Kurosawa or Eisenstein.
Bresson's visual style couldn't be more fitting for the setting--the whole movie is focused on the title character, in a series of tight medium shots and close-ups. The camera is trained on him, and since he operates in such a small space, it rarely strays elsewhere. The impression of claustrophobic confinement is thus emphasized, even magnified--about an hour of the way through you dearly wish for a shot of a tree, of the sky, of something outside the prison walls, which Bresson refuses to grant (the final shots are of more walls, glimpsed through thick fog, and at night). A voiceover keeps you constantly inside Fontaine's head, telling you what he thinks and feels with direct simplicity.
Bressson builds tension here in ways Hitchcock might have approved of--the emphasis on deadlines and time limits, the constant fear of being detected or searched, the treachery of the Nazis (a promise of release is always suspect until you've actually been shown out the door, something we never actually see--or hear--happen). And it isn't just the circumstances--when he's finally ready, with hooks and ropes and all, Fontaine experiences a failure of nerve (a crisis of faith?), and can't seem to bring himself to actually escape.
It's almost all escape, all the time, but Bresson manages to take a moment to speculate about God's role in all this. "Trust in God," a priest says, but Fontaine is more practical: "we have to help him," he says. The prison break might be Bresson's way of dramatizing a spirit being redeemed, but he's not very didactic about ways and means: if anything, his hero is microscopically narrow-minded, focused only on the minutiae of his coming flight. Interesting to compare him to the hero in Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest--Fontaine is more physically restrained, but he has an outward focus, a definite goal he has his eyes trained on that keeps him going; the cure in Diary roams where he pleases, but his soul is trapped, maimed in some fatally hidden manner.
Bresson's sound design is as strong as ever, with tappings on the walls reminding us of neighboring prisoners (potential allies or informers) listening on either side, the loud chatter of the machine gun reminding us of the penalty of being found out. Two moments in the use of sound stand out: when Fontaine first taps on a wall and gets silence as a reply, it turns out the old man on the other side is too frightened to answer. As Fontaine gets to know his neighbor, the old man begins to open up to him, whisper to him from his window, confide in him, at one point (in a rare burst of motion so sudden as to be almost spectacular) tossing him a blanket for making rope.
On the very night of Fontaine's escape, the old man makes a single request: he should knock before he leaves. Fontaine does this, and the reply--the sound of tapping where before there had been fearful silence--is inexpressibly moving, like a baby's long anticipated first words finally uttered.
The second moment comes when Fontaine is on the roof; he's thrown the hook across the gap between two walls, the final obstacle, and stopped; Bresson inserts a fade, possibly the most exasperating in all of cinema, because you realize that time has passed; Fontaine is again experiencing a loss of nerve, and can't bring himself to climb across. The clock strikes, and you count the beats--one, two, three, four.
With the chimes Bresson has indicated just how much time is left, just how close Fontaine is to succeeding (it's the first time we actually hear a clock), and just how close to catastrophic failure (a hundred and twenty minutes more or less--about the length of a motion picture--till sunrise, and capture).
The final scene has Fontaine tightly embracing his escape partner Jost, who murmurs "if only my mother can see me now." One wonders about the gesture: an expression of brotherly affection and friendship in an especially intense moment? Or, as David Thomson channeling Bogart might put it, "the beginning of a beautiful friendship"?