August 29, 1957 [A Man Escaped]

Somewhere in the middle of Moby-Dick Ishmael describes for us the daily business of a whaling ship. Afterward, I was convinced that, all things being equal, if I found myself at his side tomorrow, I could do my job, I could manage the steps required to turn a sea monster into lamp oil.

The same occurred while watching A Man Escaped, the meticulous examination of the urge to be free. From the first moments only that urge matters--the prisoner in the car, the closeup of his hand approaching the door handle, waiting for his chance, taking it--and immediately caught--but off-camera, the audience remaining in the car, the man's failure respectfully unobserved.

Because that was the last time he'd fail. In his cell--throughout the rest of the film always wearing the same blood-stained shirt that marked his first attempt at escape--the man bears down on the logistics of freedom with a calm French melancholy, an existential acceptance of two things: (1) his hopeless imprisonment and (2) his desire to escape. That is the film's universe, the rest of us outside the wall incidental, far from his mid-War dilemma, Paris a step away but completely invisible, the prison itself like the sea in Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat," simply there, a blank, indifferent menace.

But it is not mere mood: It is instruction in fashioning a reinforced rope, a small sharp tool, a jigsaw-puzzle door one can dismantle--and reassemble--in seconds. And the only impediment is other human beings--they're unpredictable, their allegiances difficult to ascertain--while the prison is almost an ally in its solid, honest intention. The man uses this to his advantage, as he creeps step by careful step toward the moment when he can trust at least one other and be a man escaped.


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