Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
Director: Louis Malle
Stars: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Lino Ventura
IMDB Score: 8
Released in early 1958, Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows is a crime thriller set in motion by a murder disguised to look like a suicide. One simple mistake, however, leads to 2 more murders, a man hunt, a series of mistaken identities & an attempted suicide. Malle’s intricately plotted film, his first fiction film, is a tight 91 minute excursion through a Paris that didn’t quite exist at the time of shooting. Enamored with American films like many of his contemporaries (Trufaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer) & somewhat beholding to the masterworks of Jean Pierre Melville, Malle admittedly looked to modernize Paris, with an eye towards America. Key points in the plot were shot at the only motel in France, which in the film is supposed to be just outside Paris, but was actually 125 miles away. Similarly, the elevator of the title was in one of only 5 buildings so equipped in Paris. In using these “Americainized” locations Malle said he created a Paris of ten years in the future. The film also cast forward towards the New Wave that was to overtake French film a few years later in its themes of isolation, the consumerist attitudes & dispossession of the younger generation & undertones of a disillusionment at the core of French society.
Julian Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is a decorated hero of the French wars in Indochina & Algeria, who now works for a crooked arms dealer, Simon Carala. He is also having a passionate love affair with his boss’s wife. Malle introduces the lovers in extreme close-ups to open the film as they proclaim their love for each other over the phone. In a silent caper right out of Melville, Tavernier climbs up the side of his office building to kill his boss, plant a gun & then repel down a floor to cover his tracks. Not realizing he left a key piece of evidence behind, he exits the building with co-workers, sealing his alibi & preparing to rendezvous with his now widowed lover. Returning to the building he becomes trapped in an elevator, while 2 young lovers steal his car, the gun he leaves in the glovebox & leave Paris, driving by Mrs. Carala (Jeanne Moreau). She is distraught when she mis-identifies the driver as Tavernier & wanders the Paris streets all night looking for him.
Moreau, who was already a veteran of nearly 20 films, &would go on to star in French New Wave classics like The Lovers (Malle, ’58), Jules & Jim (Trufautt, 62), was the first to sign on to star, which immediately elevated the films stature. Her emotional search for Tavernier throughout the night centers the film, while at the same time reflecting the chaos taking place to the other characters as she becomes more desperate & disheartened about her missing lover. Similarly, her determined attitude to solve the murders committed at the hotel & clear Tavernier, unravels the series of odd coincidences & mistaken identities that drive the police to splash Tavernier all over the front pages.
The young lovers themselves, who steal Tavernier’s car & assume his identity, represent & reflect a change in attitude in French youth that lived in the moment, even if that meant stealing. Veronique (Yori Bertin), a flower girl who admires the suave Tavernier from afar, & Louis (Georges Poujouly), a leather jacketed punk, escape the boredom by racing a flashy Mercedes on the highway, then following the German couple in the car to a motel for drinks, cigars & a couple of pictures. Their devil may care attitude that allows them to live in every moment without forethought leads to the only real tragedy in the film, but it also uncovers the duplicitous nature of all the relationships in the film.
Malle, who dropped out of film school to embark on a 2 month voyage with Jacques Cousteau, ended up staying with the iconic conservationist for 3 years, rising to be head of his filming unit. Cousteau granted Malle co-directing status on the film The Silent World (’56), leaving Malle to reflect later about Elevator to the Gallows, “The only thing I directed before were a bunch of fish.” Upon leaving Couseau, Malle came across a crime novel that he shaped into Elevator to the Gallows with novelist Roger Nimier. In doing so, Malle created one of the best film debuts for a director & helped establish a nearly 36 year career that produced The Fire Within (’63), Atlantic City (’80), My Dinner With Andre (’81) & Au Revoir les Enfants (’87), to name just a few.
A final Note: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention to immense contribution that the Miles Davis score has on the mood & action of this film. Davis’ trumpet lifts the action & Kenny Clarke’s drums create the rhythm of the story, dictating both mood & feeling throughout, especially during Moreau’s nighttime wanderings. It also helps wrap the actors in their desolation & loneliness like no other music could.