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

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Feb 07, 2012 01:04 AM
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by Geoff Manaugh ( last modified Feb 06, 2012



[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).




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