It's tempting to call A Man Escaped the original prison break movie, but it's not. I don't even know what is the original one, but it was probably made before 1956, the year this movie was released. I can say, however, that this is the best film about breaking out of a prison I have ever seen. That includes The Shawshank Redemption, folks.
Directed by French auteur, Robert Bresson, the film concerns a man named Fontaine, who has been imprisoned by German soldiers in German-occupied France in 1943 for committing a crime we don't learn about until most of the way through the film. From the very start, Fontaine has the single-minded goal of returning to his freedom at any cost. The film begins with him riding in the back seat of a car, handcuffed, and his attempt to run away while the car is stopped. He fails, and is brought back. Bresson, in his characteristically elliptical manner, keeps the camera focused on the inside of the car while Fontaine tries to run, only to see the man again, beaten and bloodied, when he's brought back into his seat. This sets the tone of the film, and also establishes the main - and only - plot line.
There is a refreshing purity to the story of Bresson's film. Bresson tells the film strictly from Fontaine's point of view, so we see and hear only what he is capable of seeing and hearing. There are ancillary characters who figure into the plot, but ultimately this is only Fontaine's story. Other films, like the aforementioned Shawshank, populate themselves with a rogue's gallery of characters, which expands the scope and atmosphere of the prison. And for a longer, larger-scope film like that, the approach can work. However, Bresson cares less about the mechanics of a prison and prefers to focus on the spiritual and psychological tortures of being imprisoned. That's why something as meaningless in a contemporary movie like the unlocking of a cell door becomes almost a character unto itself in this film.
Bresson liked to focus on the actions of his characters, as opposed to them elucidating their inner thoughts via dialogue. Fontaine is a man of action. He immediately sets to constructing his means of escape by taking apart his bed, covertly dismantling his cell door and using the materials from his cell lantern for anything that could assist his egress. In a way, the film has some of the same attraction as something like The Martian, because we get to watch as an endlessly ingenious and creative individual gets his way out of an impossible situation.
In every way that that film goes straight for the emotional throat, A Man Escaped prefers a streamlined, stripped-down approach. Both ways of film-making are equally valid. However, I'd argue that Bresson's film is more suspenseful than Ridley Scott's, lack of flashy special effects, notwithstanding. This is made ironic by the fact that we know the ending of the film just by the title, whereas The Martian's result is ideally unknown to us. Bresson employed realism whenever he could in his films, and it is because of this that we become completely invested in Fontaine's predicament.
I watched A Man Escaped because it was featured in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, through which I am making my way steadily. It deserves to be on that list, as well as in any conversation about great films and television about prison.