Elevator to the Gallows

Studio: Criterion

Feb 14, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Louis Malle was only twenty-four when he directed Elevator to the Gallows, his first fictional feature film. Released in 1958, the film stands at the crossroads of several cinematic movements.  Heavily indebted to American film noir of the 40s and 50s, it can also be considered one of the earliest examples of French New Wave, which was only a year away from exploding onto the international scene with Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and JeanLuc Goddard’s Breathless. Malle’s debut is less formally stylized than the more famous works of the French New Wave, but his infusion of a hip new sensibility into a pulpy crime thriller would help set the template for a movement that revolutionized the medium.

Modern audiences would probably find the comic/tragic thrillers of the Coen Brothers as the natural touchstone for Elevator to the Gallows. The film revolves around two couples, one of whom commits a pre-meditated murder, the other of whom embarks on a spur of the moment crime spree. Both plans intersect and go awry thanks to a cocktail of stupidity, mistaken identity and plain bad luck. The first couple, Florence and Julien, plan to murder her wealthy husband - who is also Julien’s boss - and run away together. The second couple, Louis and Veronique, are two juvenile delinquents who steal Julien’s car, find his gun and proceed to get into a whole mess of trouble. Julien gets trapped in an elevator after committing the murder, leaving Florence to wander the rainy streets of Paris wondering if he’s abandoned her.  

Despite being a nuts-and-bolts crime thriller, Elevator to the Gallows has quite a bit on its mind politically. Julien is a veteran of the French Indochina War and the film overtly mentions the then-current Algerian War of Independence raging against French colonial rule. The moral and physical damage wrought by these conflicts manifests in ways both obvious and subtle. Florence’s husband made his millions as an arms dealer. Meanwhile, the young security guard in his office building walks with a pronounced but unmentioned limp, a possible memento of one of these wars. It’s notable that the French New Wave preceded the Hollywood New Wave by roughly the same amount of time that their war in Vietnam preceded ours, as though the youth of both nations couldn’t help but lash out artistically against their countries respective imperialist misadventures.  

Malle’s focus on the youthful concerns of war protest and jazz - did I mention this movie has a score by Miles Davis?- doesn’t mean he lets his generation off the hook. Louis and Veronique are clear precursors to the lawless young lovers that Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg would make famous in Breathless two years later. They’re hapless and short-sighted, to put it mildly, and much of the film’s humor comes from the characterization of Louis as a preening, self-important dolt who thinks he’s James Dean. That this character shares a first name with Malle himself could be a coincidence, but it could easily be interpreted as the director poking fun at himself and his hipster cohort. The film creates an interesting dichotomy between the two couples; Louis and Veronique are never shown apart while Florence and Julien never interact beyond a phone call in the opening sequence. Julien spends most of the film trapped in an elevator while Florence (played by the luminous Jeanne Moreau) spends most of the film wandering the streets of Paris, musing to herself in voice over while Miles Davis’s trumpet wails plaintively on the soundtrack. These sequences, although the least relevant to the plot, represent some of Malle’s most striking filmmaking, particularly a sequence in which Moreau stumbles heedlessly across a multi-lane street while cars whizz by within inches of her.  Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade of the film boasts a number of extras and supplements, most notably a number of features exploring the improvised score by Miles Davis, which signified the start of his ‘modal’ period. There’s also an interview with Jeanne Moreau from 2005 which reveals that she was not only still striking and sharp as a tack at the age of seventy-seven, but also extremely articulate regarding the film and its themes. Also included is an absurdist student film by Malle, which utilizes the Charlie Parker track, “Crazieologie”.



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