French director Louis Malle's first fiction film is an assured and artistically adventurous suspense picture. Unlike the later New Wave directors with whom he's often associated, Malle's progressive ideas are an attempt to refresh the cinema, not break it down: This is a picture that Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock could easily admire.
Jean-Luc Godard chose to toy with the Film Noir style but Louis Malle simply made a picture that improves upon its American models. With the help of actress Jeanne Moreau and jazz great Miles Davis, he gives his thriller a modern look that owes nothing to tradition. Jacques Becker (Touchez pas au Grisbi!) and Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le flambeur) are nostalgic about earlier styles. Malle's dynamic Elevator to the Gallows looks ahead to an impersonal, politically conflicted future.
Elevator to the Gallows is a serious take on Raymond Chandler's observation about hardboiled murder stories: A romantic kiss can indeed be the cement that binds a death pact. This calculated thriller comes at the end of the American Noir era. Its trick narrative is built on the remorseless process of random fate, much like one of H.G. Clouzot's murder tales. It's a careful, precise film about a cascade of "chance" occurrences, enough to flummox the Best Laid Plans of any murderer.
Malle and screenwriter Roger Nimier's murderous lovers never meet; we witness their fateful final phone call before the planned Double Indemnity- style killing. We know little about them beyond their mutual passion. The strength of their bond is put to a test that no relationship could survive. When Julien is late for their meeting Florence jumps to a wrong conclusion and wanders the streets in a hallucinatory daze, wondering what has happened. Isolated by happenstance, the pair remains true to each other ... an effort that ironically doesn't do them any favors.
This is one of those crime tales where one mistake puts an excruciating domino effect into motion. The main situation (no spoilers here) generates instant Hitchcock suspense. Our hero taps considerable reserves of experience and courage in his struggle to get out of a particularly daunting trap. As much as we want him to escape, the film is no "escapist" caper. Reality just refuses to cooperate sometimes. Elevator to the Gallows offers no chases and barely any violence, preferring to construct a maze of credible complications that will ultimately determine whether or not Florence and Julien will be caught. Malle observes it all with a cool detachment and restraint. He obscures one violent act with a discreet cutaway to, of all things, a pencil sharpener. Alfred Hitchcock must have been at least a little jealous of Malle's visual dexterity.
Elevator to the Gallows is also about French politics in 1957. Julien is an ex- war hero from Indochina working as a "business agent" for Simon Carala, an influential arms dealer with a shady interest in a secret map of an African oil pipeline. Julien carries a spy camera and a revolver in his car, making us question the nature of his "sensitive" duties for his boss. Meanwhile, more trouble comes in the form of a pair of wild teenagers infatuated with consumer luxuries. The girl Veronique (Yori Bertin) works in a flower shop and is enamored of Julien's American convertible. The boy Louis (Georges Poujouly) is an uncommunicative punk who dresses like James Dean and likes impromptu joy rides. They take Julien's car, gun, camera and identity and start raising havoc for him at the worst possible time.
Car thief Louis meets a jolly German tourist with a beautiful young wife and enough money to shrug off a fresh dent in his new gull-wing Mercedes. When Louis lists the German wartime occupation of France as one of the things bugging him, the tourist happily acknowledges fond memories of the experience! By this time, so many things are going wrong that all bets are off; Julien is having trouble getting clear of the scene of the crime, while Louis and Veronique are using his name and car to break more laws.
Few 25 year-olds make pictures as assured as this one, and Elevator to the Gallows became a big success for both Louis Malle and Jeanne Moreau. Before this picture Moreau was a much bigger stage star than a film personality. She looks naturally sexy on the screen for the first time, wandering the streets like a madwoman with Miles Davis' sultry jazz music backing her up. Malle credits Davis' entire combo in the opening titles -- he knows what's making his film work. The low-light night photography in Paris is particularly good. The most technically adept of young French directors, Malle makes good use of his camera experience with Jacques Cousteau. Elevator to the Gallows is an inexpensive movie that never looks cheap.
Louis Malle was fond of saying that before this film the only actors he had directed were Jacques Cousteau's fish. He must have been like a big brother to all of the New Wave upstarts that jockeyed for attention just a year or two later -- he never seems to be in competition with anybody.
Familiar faces Lino Ventura and Charles Denner appear as representatives of the police; future Louis Malle star Jean-Claude Brialy has a bit part.
Criterion's great 2-disc set of Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows has a smooth enhanced transfer that retains the nuances and gradients of a 35mm print: It just looks splendid. The beautifully recorded Miles Davis score is an inspired accompaniment; it's a popular seller separately on CD.
Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten has lined up excellent interview extras. A really good Canadian piece covers director Malle's entire period from film school to Elevator to the Gallows. That includes his stint as an assistant to Robert Bresson, the film director he most respected. Star Maurice Ronet is seen in a short 1957 interview and a new interview with pianist René Urtreger gives us more insight into Miles Davis' contribution.
The best interview is a new sit-down with Jeanne Moreau, in English. She tells us the whole story in intimate terms, even admitting (in a respectful way) to having an affair with Malle during the filming.
The disc also has footage of Miles Davis creating his unique jazz soundtrack, which was improvised in one all-night recording session. Jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis and critic Gary Giddins discuss the unusual score on another featurette.
Finally, Louis Malle's 1954 student film Crazeologie, a rather cute Theater of the Absurd piece, makes a welcome extra. The thick insert booklet contains an essay by Terrence Rafferty, an interview with director Malle and a tribute by his younger brother, producer Vincent Malle.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Elevator to the Gallows rates: