This is usually classified as an “escape” film, but it is much more telling to classify it as a movie about problem solving, because it has much more in common with, say, The Thomas Crown Affair or The Score, than with Shawshank, or Grand Illusion. A problem solving film is just what it sounds like. The characters are presented with a problem, preferably one the audience can’t figure out how to solve very easily on their own, and the filmmakers/characters devise a clever solution. The solution unfolds, using ingenuity and usually some neat tools and we vicariously experience the joys of monkeyhood. A problem solving story is the inverse of the mystery in that the facts of the “case” are laid bare right off the bat. The problem is solved by the ideas the protagonist brings to it, rather than by the new information he discovers and puts together.
Normally, the problems and solutions involve an elaborate set up, with lots of talk about how tough they are. The solutions come during the climax, when the safe is finally cracked or an escape is finally made or Justin is finally able to pry Britney’s legs apart. What makes Le Trou better than most of its ilk, is that like 60% of the film is pure problem solving–one problem after another. The problems aren’t hyped-there’s not time for that. When the inmates tunnel out of their cell, they have accomplished maybe 10% of what they need to in order to escape. They have to get through steel bars and around three foot thick concrete barriers in the belly of the prison. They also have to figure out how to do work outside of their cell when guards look in on them every fifteen minutes (the solution to that problem was later ganked by Ferris Bueller). They figure out how to monitor the guards from inside their cell, even though the walls and door are solid. And more.
Now, none of the solutions to these problems are really mind bending, but on the other hand they are plausible. I’ll take an unspectacular, plausible solution, such as those in Le Trou over those in so many Hollywood films in which the filmmakers have so much (probably justified) contempt for the audience that they don’t even bother trying to figure out plausible solutions to problems, like say, that fucking, stupid ass computer virus thing in Independence Day .
The other aspects of the film only need to be good enough to allow us to enjoy all the lock picking and jury-rigging, but they actually add something to the escape attempt. The characters, dialog and acting are quality in their own right, especially in bringing out the comradery between the prisoners, which makes the escape attempt matter, rather than being a mere exercise in cleverness.
Also, because this is an older prison movie, nobody gets reamed even though ‘Le Trou’ Means ‘the hole’. That’s sort of a nice change of pace. Today every time someone makes a film about prison they think, “people get anally raped in prison, ergo, if I am to make a realistic prison film, I must show someone held down while the Nazi Low Riders run a fudge train on him.” But this is poor reasoning. People get reamed on the outside too, but many films, such as “Ghost Dog” or “Fargo” are quite watchable, even though the feature little or no forced sodomy.