Criterion Catch-Up: Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

elevator to the gallows cover

When I was deciding what film was going to kick this off, I wanted something that was familiar. Sure, I could have gone with the challenge of something like A Brighter Summer Day but in the week of recharging the batteries in the midst of work and health/life stress I needed some comfort, something that I knew would be slightly less onerous than a four-hour Taiwanese period drama. So the 1-2 combination of Louie Malle tackling noir as a kind of precursor to the French New Wave as well as an improvised score by Miles Davis, playing with the modal style that would soon blossom into Kind of Blue? Yeah…I could get down with that.

Elevator to the Gallows was a bit of a compromise for Malle, who would have preferred his first narrative feature (he previously worked with Jacques Cousteau on the award winning documentary The Silent World) but at only 25 wasn’t able to get the financing to make it. So he settled on adapting a twisted crime thriller based on the novel by Noël Calef. Despite the deep genre ties to noir and 2-year delay before the French New Wave would really explode with The 400 Blows and Breathless, you can clearly see Malle pushing against format and really showing off the chops that would mature over the course of his long and varied career. The movie may owe more to Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray, but the way in which Malle executes on the twists and turns of the plot and the way he injects the small moments that would come to define his cinematic obsessions: the war, the way a city can reflect its inhabitants, and of course the people who live in his worlds – every closeup of Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet tells a haunted history. Malle’s way of framing his characters was already full born in his first feature.

The plot of Elevator to the Gallows is a ridiculous feast of crime and noir tropes that I ate up as I watched it. Moreau and Ronet are Florence Carala and Julien Tavernier, lovers who we meet in the movie’s opening moments discussing their plan to kill Florence’s husband, who also happens to be Julien’s boss. The plan is simple: pretend to be working, slip out and up to the boss’s office, kill him, make it look like a suicide, sneak back into his office and leave for the weekend, at which time he’ll meet up with Florence at their favorite meeting spot. And the crime does go smoothly: in a few deft scenes Julien – a former paratrooper – goes out his window, climbs with a rope to the next floor, confronts and murders his boos, plants the gun and gets back to his office with no problem. As he leaves for the weekend with his secretary and the building’s security guard he realizes as he starts his car that he left the rope on the building. Leaving the car running he pops back inside and gets in the elevator to quickly retrieve it.

And then the security guard, closing down for the weekend, shuts off the power, locking Julien in the elevator.

Other films would make a meal just with this scenario. But no, there’s more: Across the street is the lovely Véronique the flower shop girl and her tough boyfriend Louis. Tired of hearing Véronique fawn over the suave Julien he decides to steal Julien’s car. So the two kids go fora joyride around town. Next Florence has been waiting forever for Julien to arrive with no word. Suddenly she see his car drive by – with another woman in the passenger seat.

So now we have Julien stuck in the elevator, his car stolen by a couple of kids, and Florence thinking he ran off with another woman. Enough material for a few films t this point but the plot twists again, as Louis and Véronique wind up masquerading as Juklien and his “wife” and meet up with an older German couple who – in yet another misunderstanding – are shot and killed by Louis. Now we have multiple murders by multiple people, and a pair of doomed lovers who can’t seem to find a way out. All the trappings of noir are in place, and Malle expertly knocks the pins down until we get to the inevitable finale.

So much of the film boils down to how fun the plot is, but so much of Elevator to the Gallows charm is due to the excellent cinematography of Henri Decaë, who uses natural lighting for everything and shows a shadowy, gorgeously modern Paris that works beautifully in tandem with the incredible score by Miles Davis. And though it would appear she has little to do other than roam the city streets in despair over Julien, Jeanne Moreau is wonderful in the role of Florence, utterly open to showing a woman in distress where hair and makeup don’t matter. There are moments watching where she looks like a wreck and then the light will just catch and she becomes radiant. Performances across the board are great, but I have to give a special shout out to Cinema Dual favorite Lino Ventura, who makes a brief appearance as the Inspector who ultimately wraps up the cases. Reading up on the film Malle talks about it as being his homage to the work of Hitchcock and Bresson, but while watching it the other name that really came to mind for me was Melville – his cool, methodical process of directing a scene felt like close kin to this film.

So it’s probably no surprise that I liked a cool film noir with its head peeking to the French New Wave, but as I start to go through these films I expect all sorts of similar patterns about my habits and interests will emerge – there’s a reason I picked these films up i the first place, right? So please don’t be surprised if the format of this thing changes over time – I want to make it a little shorter and make sure I’m touching on similar things each time, if for no other reason than I want to build in every little bump and nudge to successfully complete this as I can.

In that spirit, I’ll leave with this wonderful production photograph of Miles Davie and Jeanne Moreau. We’ll see you next time.


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