Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958)

Elevator to the Gallows is a brilliantly constructed misdirection, moving so quickly into a premeditated murder that, in retrospect, it's only natural that the film should so quickly switch gears due to mishaps. Malle soon plunges into a series of things going awry that introduces characters solely to trap them in their own morbid downfalls. The film sometimes gets labeled as a film noir, yet the film's sense of macabre irony is far more indicative of the coming genre deconstruction of the Nouvelle Vague than just another thriller. Indeed, for all the icy beauty of the picture, Elevator to the Gallows is often a dark riot, made by a director with a multilayered, daring grasp on cinema even with this marvelous debut.

The film begins with the hushed, torrid whispers of lovers speaking to each other on the telephone, reaffirming their romance and putting the final touches on a plan to kill the husband of the woman, Florence (Jeanne Moreau), who is also Julien's (Maurice Ronet) boss. With silent precision, Malle immediately cuts to the act in question, an absurdly grandiose maneuver that has Julien scaling the modern office building walls of glass to sneak into Simon's floor without detection, allowing him to kill the old industrialist and frame it as a suicide. Undetected, Julien climbs back down to his office and leaves, getting out to his car and putting the key in the ignition before he takes one last look at the building and...notices he left the rope danging. All it takes is one slip-up.

Having retrieved the rope, Julien gets in the elevator to leave, only for the last person to leave and shut off the power, trapping him inside for the weekend. As Julien sits in his cage, a local punk, Louis, steals his car and drives off with his girlfriend Véronique, who dangles out of the car window and catches the eye of Florence, who assumes that Julien has run off with another woman.

From there the film divides into three distinct storylines, each informed by others but held separate to craft microcosms of loneliness and cynicism.  Julien comes to resemble a prisoner in an extreme security facility, suspended over an inky pit as he frets over his crime being discovered. Ronet's performance is, obviously, the most confined and intimate, but he injects quietly churning fear into every peering scan around the elevator shaft for some means of escape. Louis and Véronique, meanwhile, find themselves in the company of wealthy German tourists. The young man tries to spout off self-righteous rants about France's imperial engagements in Algeria and Indochina, yet his lust for capitalist trinkets like fast cars leads to even worse crimes than grand theft auto. Louis' ironic, hypocritical actions serve to break him from any societal faction, isolating him as a directionless kid looking for a thrill at any cost.

Moreau, however, steals the film, spending most of her time walking with frozen panic, moving through alley and dive hunting for Julien. Moreau's face is a minor miracle, a collage of pain, jealousy, confusion and outrage arranged in terrifying and heartbreaking stillness. Miles Davis' score, a terrifically minimal and melancholy piece even by his standards, is never more haunting than when it backs scenes of Moreau wandering Paris' modern, shiny yet strangely bleak streets.

Postwar and pre-New Wave, Elevator to the Gallows exists in a world of thick irony: past crimes provide alibis for newer ones, and exonerating evidence also contains damning proof of other violations. Its repeated namechecks of Algeria and Indochina are deliberately framed as empty platitudes for a generation that nevertheless finds itself the survivor of conquest now made to "defend" conquered lands from sovereignty. Though even the people who bring up these outrages do not truly care about them, they subconsciously reflect a growing sense of unease in De Gaulle's France, a place where capitalist pleasures are beginning to lose their effect on people who have yet to find a new direction to lead them. In that sense, the film is transitional not merely in its pre-New Wave style but as a social document. And yet, Malle still finds the space in this relentlessly cynical movie for some visual humor, cuing the audience in on the coming disarray early on with the sight of a black cat walking outside a building where it has no reason to be other than to be symbolic. It's obvious, shameless, and hilarious, and it's the first wry tweak to grace a film by one of cinema's most steadfastly unpredictable artists.


  1. I love the shots of Moreau silently walking around rainy Paris, accompanied by that wonderful Miles Davis score. It's the epitome of atmosphere: Moreau's perpetually downturned mouth and haunted expression, the slick noirish photography, the sad and beautiful music. It's great stuff.

    I'm not as convinced by the rest of the film, which feels pretty slight and cliched. There's lots of very pat ironies, the characters are undeveloped abstractions, and the plot doesn't really live up to the moody atmosphere of the film's best moments. It does seem to point the way forward, in various ways, to Godard's Breathless, which much more radically and entertainingly deals with similar plots and characters.

  2. I agree that it's flawed, but then so are all transitional works. I felt the atmosphere only ever briefly flagged and that, while it's not nearly as deconstructive as the gangster films about to come down the pipeline, I'd still revisit it as much as Breathless. And of the three Malle films I've seen, its the one I most want to watch again, although in fairness Au Revoir Des Enfants shouldn't really leave one clamoring for a back-to-back viewing.