Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Man Escaped: The importance of sound

Today, I'm going to tackle Robert Bresson's 1956 masterpiece A Man Escaped. Without even telling you the story, we already know the outcome of the film just by the title. So the question isn't why or when, but rather how. This question is explored through the use of sound. It serves a number of functions. Whether it is through sound effects, Fontaine's narration, through motifs, or through music. All contribute to the whole of the film.

Based on the story of a French Resistance leader captured by Germans during WWII, A Man Escaped marked Bresson's third movie. Bresson wisely chooses not to profile any German soldier unless absolutely necessary. Allowing us to experience the full subjectivity of Fontaine's experience. We see what he sees. We hear what he hears. It's being submerged in the routine of the prisoner and the patience of the process eventually pays off.

Fontaine's narration carries us through his experience. Yet, the images don't match up with his commentary. We are aware that he will escape his prison. So the question doesn't become whether or not he will escape but how he will escape. This allows us to train our mind on the ordinary objects he uses to break out.

Sound is also used to fill in our imaginations. For example, the opening scene shows Fontaine escaping out of car. The camera holds on the passenger who was sitting next to him and stays inside the car rather than follow Fontaine out. We hear feet running and then gunshots. We can guess how it went down because the sound guides our expectations. Even though the camera does not show them. This happens a few more times in the movie.

A Man Escaped, along with Hitchcock's The Birds and Scorsese's Raging Bull, is one of the key films to study in regards to the use of sound and how it shapes the process of storytelling.

For further reading, David Bordwell has a great analysis of how sound is used in the film:


Criterion Collection also included excerpts of the essay on their blu ray:


  1. This is such an awesome post. I love exploring a film's many assets, and how it uses them in all the right ways. I haven't seen this yet, but I really need to.

  2. I look forward to your thoughts on it.

  3. I remember seeing this film in one of my classes last year and being pleasantly surprised by how compelling it was. It's a brilliant piece of work to be sure, and the extremely restricted narration (the fact that we never learn anything before Fontaine does) really helps to add to the tension. The first time I saw it I couldn't help but think of all the different ways his plan could go horribly wrong if he made even the slightest mistake. The sound is definitely crucial in that sense, since often that's the only indication as to what is happening anywhere else in the prison and it adds an additional layer of tension on quite a few occasions (i.e. that one scene where Fontaine and Jost have to climb over an alleyway while a guard keeps riding his bicycle through).