The sound of an electric pencil sharpener masks the crack of a shot that initiates what might have been the perfect murder in Louis Malle’s debut film, Elevator to the Gallows (1958), now touring theaters in a gorgeous 4K digital restoration courtesy of Rialto Pictures. Malle’s movie, distinct from the more naturalistic comedies and dramas that characterized his primary directorial focus, and certainly also from his later documentary work, is a fatalistic French film noir that exists tremulously in the space between a more classical, American-derived style and the first, faint signals of the French New Wave, which it seems to foreshadow with longing and a swoon of sustained anticipation.
The movie indicates the unusual silvery and shadowy visual pleasures of its brilliant cinematographer Henri Decae (Bob Le Flambeur, The 400 Blows, Purple Noon, Le Circle Rouge) right from the start: a masked close-up of the eyes of Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) which expands into an extreme close-up on her desperate, almost pleading features. She’s on the phone with Julien Tavernier, her lover (Maurice Ronet), and it’s clear they have something planned for the woman’s husband, a shady French arms dealer and industrialist whose company employs Tavernier and who stands in the way of the adulterous couple’s idealized bliss.
Julien sneaks into his boss’s office, confronts him and then, as his secretary grinds away on that pencil sharpener, plugs him with a shot from the man’s own revolver, setting up what will look like an obvious suicide. After being escorted out of the building with the secretary by the building’s security officer, Julien realizes he’s left the rope and grappling hook he used to gain entrance to his boss’s penthouse office dangling from the outdoor balcony. (In an age where paranoia is defined somehow more pervasively, it’s strange to think on a not-so-distant past when skulking about the outside of a city building without worrying about being seen was somewhat more plausible than it is now.) But before he can complete the elevator ride back to the top floor to retrieve the evidence, the security officer shuts down the building’s power and locks the place up, leaving Julien trapped in dangerous proximity to the scene of the crime.
It’s a perfectly claustrophobic situation, but Malle exploits it for suspense, not suffocation. The rest of Elevator to the Gallows plays out in relatively open spaces, where the breeze of freedom is intertwined with an inexorable foreboding which suggests that, for Moreau and for the young couple who impulsively steal Tavernier’s car when he heads back upstairs, the pleasures of everyday life will always be mirages, just out of reach. After seeing that stolen car pull away with a young woman in the passenger seat, not stopping to pick her up as had been previously arranged, Florence presumes Julien has scurried away with a younger flame, so she sets out into the nightlife of the Parisian neighborhood where they live, asking about her lover. In these sequences Moreau glides down the sidewalks, observing casual conversations and unfettered relationships the likes of which she may never experience again, murmuring to herself and hinting at mysteries of motivation and devotion, almost a phantom on Decae’s street-lit, chiaroscuro-and-pearls canvas. She’s further propelled by Miles Davis’s insinuating improvisational jazz score, which Malle uses in counterpoint to the structure of tightly-wound tension evoked by the story. Davis’ impetuous trumpet functions almost like a siren calling ahead past plot function to a realm of validation of American cool that would help to characterize the oncoming French New Wave.
Meanwhile, the young couple, with impulses toward lawlessness but little accompanying experience, vision or ambition, encounters a pair of married German tourists at a roadside motel, and the situation that develops there only serves to tighten the noose around Julien’s neck. These two—she a young worker in a floral shop with fantasies of escaping her dreary routine, he a directionless, indifferent would-be thug who hides his fear beneath a leather jacket—function almost like alternate-world versions of Florence and Julien, literally driving down one of the roads that circumstances, including their own joyriding intervention, have prevented the older couple from taking as a means of escape from a fate of their own devising.
. (The boy even assumes Julien’s identity at one point and conjures a tall tale revolving around a military history he’s at least 20 years too young to have experienced.) The boy and girl also cast the film’s eye forward— in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (released two years later, in 1960), Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg would serve as fully fleshed-out echoes of the doomed youngsters in Malle’s film.
At the end of her aimless night out Florence has been arrested for drunken disorderliness along with a bunch of acquaintances, and when her identity as the wife of the local corrupt captain of industry (whose ultimate fate has not yet been discovered) is determined by the police she is immediately released. She makes her way to the car that has been sent to retrieve her, and as she gets in she catches her own reflection, barely perceptible in the deep black of the vehicle’s finish, and offers a self-assessment: “I look awful. I’m mad.” That reflection peers back with a faint ghostliness courtesy of Decae that registers more chilling than ever as seen in this restored version, and though her demeanor remains placid in the moment, there’s a feeling that we’re seeing the first, tiniest crack in a beautifully modulated façade, that to take her at her word here would be justified. (Moreau is marvelous without question in this picture.) Elevator to the Gallows is much more classically structured than Godard’s stutter-stop pop culture projectile, but looking back it’s hard not to imagine Malle having a strong sense that the fascination with American forms that characterized his fellow French filmmakers and critics, a fascination in which his own movie is drenched, would soon break out and find itself splintered and reflected in new forms, new ideas, new directions, which would, in their greatest expressions, lead to new truths. As it stands shimmering on the border between traditional and a more radical, unfamiliar film language, Elevator to the Gallows looks better, more prescient than ever from a distance of 58 years.