By Eric Chang
When watching A Man Escaped (1954) by Robert Bresson, what struck me the most was the lack of uniformity in the ebbs and flows of the different streams of information presented to the audience. However, these streams – audio, visual, and narrative – all coalesce into what is truly a very engaging, balanced, and well-structured film. I believe that a close and individual examination of each will allow us to understand just how this film comes together.
The following analysis of A Man Escaped centers largely around what I consider the “streams” of different types of information provided to the audience. When I refer to a stream of information, I am describing the rate of information provided, an admittedly qualitative measure of just how much and how often (new) information is provided to the audience.
The most noticeable aspect of the stream of audio information in A Man Escaped is actually its lack thereof. This silence is most noticeable in two forms: the silence of dialogue and the silence of all other non-dialogue sounds. From the very beginning of the film, we are presented with an extended length of the former, with the first words we hear a full minute and forty-four seconds into the film after Fontaine, the film’s protagonist, is first seen sitting in the back of a car, escapes, and is ultimately recaptured, handcuffed, and beaten. Furthermore, the first words we hear from Fontaine occur three minutes and twenty-four seconds into the film in the form of narration and the first words that Fontaine’s character actually speaks coming a full six minutes and forty-four seconds into the film.
Non-dialogue silence is also pervasive throughout the whole film. Much of this silence exists in the scenes in which Fontaine spends time in his jail cell, either quietly listening for guards’ footsteps and signals from his friends or sitting on his bed waiting to be let out. At times, this type of silence is also most pronounced when Fontaine is carving at his door. In between each scrape of his spoon chisel, we hear nothing else, leading us to focus on just how silent his cell and hallway are and how equally silent he must be as he works.
As discussed in class, deliberate silences of any kind have become foreign to American cinema audiences (disclaimers had to be issued about the 5-second silence in Star Wars: The Last Jedi). However, in A Man Escaped, both of these types of silences are understandably employed given the prison escape genre of the film. Furthermore, these silences actually accent and draw attention to the scenes that involve the occasional loud noise and/or background music.
For example, the loud sounds that occur while Fontaine is in his cell are perceived by the audience to be even louder than they actually are due to the silence (or relative silence) that exists throughout the film. A great example of this occurs at 53:50 when Fontaine puts the glass from his lantern in between the folds of his blanket and crushes it with his shoe on his cell floor (GIF below). This is an extremely loud sound and is one of the many loud noises that occurs during Fontaine’s escape preparations (others include when a large piece of his door first breaks off at 31:45, when the first panel of his door is pried off at 35:40, and when the glass breaks when Fontaine first tries to climb onto the roof at 42:00). In each of these scenes, the silence preceding and following each noise serves to actually draw more attention to the noises that interrupt it.
This is once again true when we take a look at the music and dialogue that interrupt the silence. In A Man Escaped, orchestral background music, courtesy of Mozart, swells whenever there are major plot developments, such as when Orsini attempts to escape at 48:50 (GIF below) and at the very end of the film when Fontaine’s escape is complete. Again, these short periods of intense music invite the audience to engage with major turning points of the film.
Shifting to the dialogue, the short, covert discussions that Fontaine has with the likes of his two different neighbors, the trio of men strolling outside of his first cell, and the various other inmates during their washing period contribute to an atmosphere of muted dialogue. However, similar to the relationship between silence, noise, and music, this muted atmosphere directs the audience’s attention instead to the times in the film when the relative silence is interrupted. Both the brevity of each conversation and the frequent need for quiet whispers are suddenly ended when Jost, Fontaine’s new cellmate introduced at 1:06:00, appears. After this plot point, the dialogue noticeably opens up as Fontaine talks to Jost both frequently and for extended periods of time.
Whereas the rate of audio information presented to the audience in A Man Escaped may have been purposefully inconsistent and variable, the visual stream of information was rather constant, most notably in the types of scenes and shots that were shown. When examining the film as a whole, certain scenes, settings, and actions are repeated throughout the film numerous times. For example, scenes in which inmates must exit their cells and stand in the hallway for roll call are shown a total of nine times, scenes in which inmates empty out their sanitary pails are shown a total of seven times, scenes in which inmates are washing their faces over a communal trough are shown twelve times, scenes in which Fontaine is carving away at his door are shown a total of seven times, scenes in which Fontaine talks to his neighbor through the bars of his window are shown a total of twelve times, and scenes in which Fontaine prepares his ropes and hooks are shown a total of six times. While the above list may seem exhaustive, it goes to show one major point regarding the visual information presented to the audience: it is redundant and regimented, just like Fontaine’s life inside the German prison.
This monotony, coupled with the black and white picture of the time, illustrates the painstakingly mundane nature of life as an inmate. Furthermore, even the scenes in which new information is introduced or a plot twist occurs all exist in the context of the regimented monotony that dominates the visual aspect of the film. For example, when Orsini escapes (GIF above), this escape happens directly after the inmates empty and clean their sanitary pails and are shuffling in a line to return to their cells.
Another example lies in Fontaine’s breakthroughs (literally) that occur while he is chipping, prying, and sawing away at his cell door. When the first large panel of his cell door comes off (GIF below), this is the seventh time we as the audience have witnessed a close-up shot of his slow work with the door, a scene that has already become familiar if not tiresome to both Fontaine and the audience alike. In the preparation work with both his door and his ropes and hooks, the scenes in which we observe Fontaine’s slow, methodical work become a constant throughout the film, a description representative of the film’s overall visual stream of information.
Similar to the visual information in A Man Escaped, the stream of narrative information provided to the audience tends to be rather constant. This was mainly a result of the sheer amount of narration provided by Fontaine, as it seemed like the majority of settings, actions, and thoughts in each scene were described in detail to the audience. Despite the overall flow of narrative information remaining largely constant, the type of information tended to be one of two types: (1) novel information otherwise unknown to the audience or (2) redundant information already apparent to the audience.
This first type of information comes into play many times when Fontaine is alone and thus cannot communicate with anybody else. For example, at the opening of the film, we see Fontaine thrown into solitary confinement, where he can only communicate with his single neighbor in Morse code. Thus, rather than breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience what he is thinking and feeling, Fontaine assumes the role of a narrator and muses about his uncertain future at 6:30 (GIF below). Here, the audience gains valuable information straight from Fontaine’s stream of consciousness that would otherwise be inaccessible without such narration.
A similarly useful narration that presents novel information can be seen when Fontaine first begins to assemble the ropes needed for his escape at 44:05. Undertaking a rather complicated process, Fontaine narrates the thought process behind each tear, wind, and twist, making the actions on the screen easy for the audience to follow and understand (GIF below).
However, for every narration that was novel, there seemed to be two that were redundant. Throughout the film, Fontaine frequently narrated the actions that were already obvious to the layman audience member. For example, after he crushes the glass from his lantern, hides it in his sanitary pail, and then empties the pail into the communal drain, he states at 54:00 that “I emptied everything into the drain,” an obvious piece of information (GIF below). Similar patterns of narrating obvious actions occur throughout the movie – when Fontaine is washing his wounds, climbing up his windowsill, knocking on his cell wall, etc.
When examined as a whole, the stream of narrative information, both novel and redundant, provides the audience with a constant source of information that closely mirrors the visual element of the film. Thus, when viewed in its entirety, we see that the mercurial nature of the stream of audio information in A Man Escaped is balanced perfectly by the constant nature of the streams of visual and narrative information. The former accents the unpredictability and sharp plot developments necessary to keep the film engaging, while the latter provides the structure and foundation to fill the space and time of a one-hundred-minute-long film.