Louis Malle is one of the best film directors to ever work in the field. He is perhaps best known for his semi-autobiographical films "Murmur of the Heart" and "Au Revoir Les Enfants", both of which depict fictionalized periods of his life growing up in France. All of his films have a magical quality about them telling compelling stories about believable characters. My first exposure to Malle was "Atlantic City", the story of an aging wannabee gangster (Burt Lancaster) who falls in love with a younger woman working in the oyster bar at a casino. Each has dreams they are pursuing, trying to escape the grind of working on the boardwalk. "Atlantic City" cemented Sarandon's growing reputation and helped to preserve Lancaster's film legacy. The popularity of "Au Revoir Les Enfants", about Malle's days at a boarding school and the friendship he made there, warranted the re-release of "Murmur of the Heart" allowing more people to experience his films. Malle quickly became on of "those" directors whose every new film I eagerly await.
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.