Louis Malle’s French thriller is cooler than cool — his first dramatic film is a slick suspense item with wicked twists of fate and images to die for: 1) Jeanne Moreau at the height of her beauty 2) walking through beautifully lit Parisian back streets 3) accompanied by a fantastic Miles Davis soundtrack. Murder in Paris doesn’t get any better.
Elevator to the Gallows
The Criterion Collection 335
1957 / B&W / 1:66 anamorphic 16:9 / 88 min. / Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, Frantic / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date March 6, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin, Jean Wall, Iván Petrovich, Elga Andersen, Lino Ventura, Charles Denner.
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Film Editor: Léonide Azar
Original Music: Miles Davis
Written by Louis Malle, Roger Nimier, Noël Calef from his novel
Produced by Jean Thuillier
Directed by Louis Malle
French director Louis Malle’s first fiction film is an assured and artistically adventurous suspense item. Unlike the later New Wave directors with whom he’s often associated, Malle’s progressive ideas aim to refresh the cinema, not break it down. This is a picture that Stanley Kubrick or Alfred Hitchcock could admire.
Jean-Luc Godard would choose to toy with the Film Noir style in Breathless but Louis Malle simply improves upon its American models, modernizing a cold-blooded murder story. With the help of actress Jeanne Moreau and jazz great Miles Davis, he gives his thriller a 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.
A synopsis is hardly necessary for this nail-biting suspense item. Illicit lovers Florence Carala and Julien Tavernier (Jeanne Moreau & Maurice Ronet) finalize their intentions over the phone: he will murder her husband and make it look like suicide. He executes a foolproof plan that requires him to climb partway up a building on a rope. In just a few minutes Julien has finished his deadly work and is on the street heading for a reunion with Florence. But he’s overlooked one detail!
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. Coming at the end of the American Noir era, the trick narrative of this calculated thriller is based 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 during the course of the film. We witness their fateful final phone call before the planned Double Indemnity– style killing. We know little about the pair 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. She wanders the streets in a hallucinatory daze, wondering what has gone wrong. Isolated by happenstance, the pair remains true to each other. . . an effort that ironically does them no favors.
This is one of those crime tales where one mistake puts into motion an excruciating domino effect. 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. Sometimes, reality just refuses to cooperate with our plans. 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. He obscures one violent act with a discreet cutaway to, of all things, a pencil sharpener. It’s the kind of wicked contextual comment that Alfred Hitchcock might make. Actually, Alfred might have been at least a little resentful of Malle’s visual dexterity here.
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 is partial to impromptu joy rides. They take Julien’s car, gun, camera and identity and start raising havoc at the worst possible time.
The reckless 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 his 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. The strikingly sexy Florence wanders the streets like a madwoman, backed up by Miles Davis’ sultry jazz music. Malle credits Davis’ entire combo in the opening titles — he knows what’s making his film work. The most technically adept of young French directors, Malle makes good use of his camera experience in documentaries.The low-light night photography in Paris is particularly attractive. 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.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Elevator to the Gallows was a hit on DVD and now returns in an even more seductive HD transfer. The images of Paris, day and night, are in themselves reason enough to return for a third or fourth viewing. The Miles Davis music is justly famous: although few Americans saw the movie, his LP soundtrack album found its way into many a record collection. The film has been newly re-transferred in 2K.
The new edition reprises all of disc producer Abbey Lustgarten’s excellent interview extras. Star Maurice Ronet is seen in a short 1957 interview, and a 2005 interview with pianist René Urtreger gives us more insight into Miles Davis’ contribution.
The best interview is a 2005 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. Only a self-possessed legend can get away with a statement like that.
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.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Elevator to the Gallows
Supplements: Interview from 2005 with actor Jeanne Moreau, archival interviews with Moreau, director Louis Malle, actor Maurice Ronet, and original soundtrack session pianist René Urtreger; footage of musician Miles Davis and Malle from the soundtrack recording session; program from 2005 about the score, featuring jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis and critic Gary Giddins; Malle’s student film Crazeologie, featuring Charlie Parker’s song; trailers. Illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty, an interview with Malle, and film producer Vincent Malle.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 1, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson