Film review: “Elevator to the Gallows” joins Bresson and Hitchcock

Louis Malle's first feature opens at Cinema 21 on Friday with the great Jeanne Moreau


It begins in classic noir fashion: urgent declarations of love cross a telephone line before Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) sets out to commit the perfect murder. At least, it might have been perfect. But having dispatched the man who is both his boss and his lover’s husband as he sat in his office, then preparing to drive away, Tavernier realizes he has left a crucial piece of evidence behind. Returning to retrieve it, he is trapped in the building’s elevator when the power is cut off for the weekend.

Tavernier’s failure to join his lover, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), at their assigned meeting place, propels her on a nocturnal journey through the streets of Paris, lost in her thoughts, not knowing if the crime has been committed or not. Moreau is radiant in the role, her most substantial film performance to this point, although she already had a successful stage career and a number of supporting parts behind her.

Jeanne Moreau's star turn in "Elevator to the Gallows" launched her film career.

Jeanne Moreau’s star turn in “Elevator to the Gallows” launched her film career.

There is a second lovestruck couple, romantic young flower seller Véronique (Yori Bertin) and her boyfriend Louis (Georges Poujouly), a teenage delinquent with a James Dean-sized generational chip on his shoulder. Finding Tavernier’s car outside his office with the engine on, they borrow both the vehicle and the identity of its owner. A highway race with a couple of German tourists ensues, which turns into a night of revelry and further violence. Cut off from the outside world, Tavernier is a wanted man before his actual crime is even discovered.

Louis Malle was in his mid-20s when he directed “Elevator To The Gallows” (1957), a restored print of which opens at Cinema 21 this week. It was his first feature in a long and varied career, although he had already shared an Academy Award with Jacques Cousteau for the documentary “Le Monde Du Silence” (1956). Malle himself discussed “Elevator” as an attempt to reconcile his contradictory admiration for the works of Robert Bresson and Alfred Hitchcock. It joins the deliberation and aura of loneliness of the former’s work to the suspense of the latter.

The film is shot in moody black and white by cinematographer Henri Decaë, who soon after would photograph Truffaut’s game-changing “The 400 Blows.” It presages the coming nouvelle vague, taking a handheld camera out of the studio and into the city’s glistening streets, utilizing the existing lighting provided by shops and bars.

Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows."

Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows.”

A political subtext runs just beneath the surface. The post-war disillusionment that fed noir’s cynicism is repurposed for a new generation. References to the conflicts in Indochina and Algeria course through the film, and the men are defined in terms of their relationship to war. We learn that Tavernier was previously a paratrooper turned legionnaire; the businessman Carala, a profiteer. Louis’ rebellion is a reaction to France’s imperialism and a childhood spent under occupation. As the film’s title implies, the violence of the individual is entwined with that of the state.

While the film looks great, it is perhaps most noted for how it sounds. Miles Davis, with time to spare on a sparsely booked European tour, spent a night in a Parisian recording studio with a group of four musicians. They were under the direction of Malle himself, while members of the cast provided entertainment. From late night until early morning, while scenes were projected on a loop, Davis and company improvised a gorgeous, melancholy soundtrack. It transforms a stylish crime flick into an indelible vision of Fifties cool.

In the end, “Elevator To The Gallows” firmly belongs to the magnetic presence of Jeanne Moreau. Through crises, murder, a suicide pact, and the arrival of Lino Ventura as the police inspector charged with piecing everything together, it is her solitary figure that forms the memorable image of the film. As she walked the city to the mournful breath of a trumpet, dampened by rain and aching with longing, a star was born.

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