Elevator to the Gallows (Criterion Collection)
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In his mesmerizing debut feature, twenty-four-year-old director Louis Malle brought together the beauty of Jeanne Moreau, the camerawork of Henri Decaë, and a now legendary score by Miles Davis. A touchstone of the careers of both its star and director, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud) is a richly atmospheric thriller of murder and mistaken identity unfolding over one restless Parisian night.
Elevator to the Gallows is many things: A tight, delicious crime thriller; the debut of director Louis Malle (Zazie dans le metro, Atlantic City, Au Revoir, Les Enfants, and many more works of subtle genius); a movie with perhaps the greatest jazz soundtrack of all time, created improvisationally by trumpeter Miles Davis; but above all, Elevator to the Gallows is the blooming of Jeanne Moreau to the status of true movie star, launching her on a career that included Jules & Jim, La notte, and La Femme Nikita. After killing his lover's husband, Julien (Maurice Ronet, Purple Noon) gets trapped in an elevator, forcing him to miss his rendezvous with Florence (Moreau) and allowing his car to be stolen by a joy-riding young couple. From there, the movie splits into three directions: Julien's efforts to escape; Florence wandering the streets, trying not to believe that Julien has abandoned her; and the car thieves, who get caught up in a murder of their own. The movie skillfully fuses Hitchcockian suspense with intimate psychodrama. As she stalks through the night, Moreau is a vision of tortured heartbreak, her woeful eyes and lush, sensuous lips illuminated by neon signs and baleful streetlamps. This is pure cinematic pleasure, visual beauty fused with taut, edge-of-your-seat storytelling.
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The labyrinth story focuses first on illicit lovers Florence Carala, the restless wife of a corrupt arms dealer, and Julien Tavernier, a former war hero working for Florence's husband. There is not a wasted moment as they plot her husband's murder, but of course, things go awry with a forgotten piece of evidence and a running car ready to be taken. An amoral young couple, sullen and resentful Louis and free-spirited Veronique, enter the scene tangentially and get caught up in their own deceptions with a boisterous German couple whom they meet through a fender bender. The plot strands meander somewhat and eventually come together in a climax that has all the characters confronting the harsh reality of their past actions. There is a particular poignancy in the photos Florence sees at the end since we have no indication of the depth of emotion between the lovers otherwise.
Malle, along with co-screenwriter Roger Nimier, presents an interesting puzzle full of irony and chance events, but there is a periodic slackness to the suspense, for instance, Florence's endlessly despondent walk though nocturnal Paris. Jazz great Miles Davis contributes a fitting hipster score, though the music is not as big an element as I expected in setting the mood. With her sorrowful eyes and pouting intelligence, Jeanne Moreau makes a vivid impression as Florence and gives her obsessed character the necessary gravitas to make her journey worthy of our interest. Maurice Ronet effectively plays Julien like a coiled spring throughout, and it's intriguing to note how most of his performance takes place in an immobilized elevator. As Louis and Veronique, Georges Poujuloy and the especially pixyish Yori Bertin are the forerunners for the runaway pair in Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" replete with youthful angst and mercenary cool.
The print transfer on the 2006 Criterion Collection DVD package is wonderfully pristine. The first disc also contains the original and 2005 re-release trailers, though there is surprisingly no scholarly audio commentary track (the usual bonus for a Criterion release). The second disc, however, makes up for it with a bevy of extras starting with an extensive 1975 early career retrospective interview with Malle, a 2005 interview with an aged but still haunting Moreau, and a joint interview with the two icons and one-time lovers at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.
Three shorts on the second disc focus on Davis's contribution - the six-minute "The Record Session" shot the night Davis and his musicians recorded the score; a remembrance piece with pianist Rene Utreger, the only surviving member of Davis's ensemble; and the celebratory "Miles Goes Modal: The Breakthrough Score to Elevator to the Gallows" where jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis and music critic Gary Giddins discuss Davis's influence over the generation of musicians to come. There is also a short by Malle set to Charlie Parker's "Crazeology" and an informative 25-page photo essay booklet.
The plot revolves around two couples: Florence Carala (Moreau), her paramour Julien (Maurice Ronet) and two juvenile delinquents, Veronique (Yori Bertin) and Louis (Georges Poujouly)...who steal Julien's car. The quartet meet only at the conclusion of the film though their actions definitely affect each other earlier.
There is also intrigue involving Julien and Florence's husband Simon Carala (Jean Wall) and their participation in war profiteering in the Indochina War (it is 1957, after all). But the plot takes a back seat to the mise en scene as Malle's camera and the mood take precedence over plot development and plot logic.
"Elevator to the Gallows" (a very witty title, by-the-way) is at times breathtakingly beautiful to behold: Decae's moody camerawork and Miles Davis' score and trumpet work are brilliant. And as a precursor to the emotional depth, flash and profundity of what was soon to arrive, "Elevator to the Gallows" is an important piece of the wonderful puzzle that was to become the French New Wave a few years hence.
One of Malle's earliest films, "Elevator to the Gallows" has just been re-released. Shot in black and white, featuring Jeanne Moreau's first film role, and highlighted by a Miles Davis soundtrack, the film is a great example of Film Noir.
Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet) share a phone conversation that only two lovers in Paris can have; they make arrangements to meet later that evening. Julien, the second-in-command at a shady French corporation, asks the receptionist if she can stay a little late. They are working on a Saturday so Julien can finish a report for their boss, Carala to take with him to Geneva. The boss calls down and says he will be leaving to catch his train shortly. Julien reenters his office, grabs his gloves, a gun, the report and a grappling hook and walks out on to his balcony. He throws the grappling hook around the balcony above and climbs up to his boss' office. Entering through the front, Julien presents the report and then kills his boss, making the death appear to be a suicide. He locks all of the doors from the inside and then climbs back to his office and leaves with the receptionist and a security guard. Walking them out, the guard returns to the building to finish his rounds. Julien hops into his convertible, attracting the eye of the flower shop girl nearby, who is meeting her boyfriend, a wannabe hood. As Julien starts the car, he realizes that he forgot to remove the rope from the balcony and rushes back inside, leaving the car running. Julien makes it up three floors in the elevator before the security guard cuts the power and leaves for the weekend, stranding him in the elevator. The flower shop girl and her boyfriend steal the car for a joyride, riding Florence who is waiting for Julien. Florence recognizes the car, but only sees the girl in the passenger seat, assuming the worse.
It may seem like I have described the entire film, but really I have just covered the set-up, all of which is intriguing and extremely well done. The film continues from here making twists and turns along the way that will delight Noir enthusiasts.
Taking place over the course of one day, the film has a stark look, almost a sort of enhanced black and white. Figures pop out with little definition or detail against backgrounds which are fairly monochromatic. This is more a result of the technique of the day and age when the film was made, Jean- Luc Godard's early films are similar, but it aids the mood of the story well.
Jeanne Moreau is beautiful and intriguing as Florence, Carala's wife. Destined to become an international star, this is a good opportunity to watch her first film, to watch how she commands your attention in every frame.
"Elevator" is not a timeless film, peppered with dated elements and references. The story following the two young lovers as they joyride through the countryside is very grounded in the late 50s. Their speech patterns, mannerisms, actions, all scream James Dean and Elvis.
But these brief moments are counteracted by other brilliant touches throughout. The story contains twists and turns which are surprising and well-done. And the Miles Davis soundtrack is, understandably, great. Thankfully, it doesn't accompany every scene, only punctuating brief interludes of the story, highlighting particular scenes.
Also, there is a light dose of political consciousness in the film. There are many mentions of arms dealers, wars, etc., as the business Julien and Carala are involved in, giving the film a little more heft, more resonance. None of these elements really serve the story, except to make Carala a well-known figure. Malle was clearly interested in making a statement. The effort is very subtle. I'm not sure he achieved his goal, but it adds to the dimensions of these characters, making them more real.
"Elevator to the Gallows" is a great film, an early effort from a master filmmaker.
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