“He’s shady, this Tavernier.”
Discussing Elevator to the Gallows in an archival interview, included on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of the film, Louis Malle recalls how his first feature came to be, noting it only really took shape after another, earlier script was essentially abandoned. That initial project was, he says, “very typical for a debut film.” In a way that is not at all disparaging of Elevator to the Gallows, as Malle’s comments are concerning that discarded screenplay, it too is rather characteristic of a premiere release. This 1958 crime-thriller has the narrative boldness and stylistic assurance of a young person at the start of his or her career, throwing caution to the wind and integrating creative influences into a film that is personal and distinct. In that, Elevator to the Gallows meets many of the superficial qualities soon to identify the French Nouvelle Vague, particularly its dual genre variance/adherence. But there is also a chilly maturity that distinguishes Malle’s film as something less frequently replicated, in his subsequent work and in that of others.
Written by Malle and Roger Nimier, based on a 1956 novel of the same name by Noël Calef, Elevator to the Gallows first appears, albeit briefly, as a passionate romance, with breathy telephone declarations of love between Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). That ardor is soon displaced by a more remote, muted premise (literally remote, as the couple will never share the frame). Florence and Julien have conspired to kill her husband, his employer, Simon (Jean Wall), a dubious arms dealer. Showcasing one of those aforementioned Malle influences, the successful execution of the homicide is accomplished by Julien with a smooth, unemotional, starched comportment, highly reminiscent of the “models” employed by Robert Bresson, for whom Malle was once an assistant. As meticulous and seamless as the deed is, however, it is not without fault—as with Bresson, form can only distill, never avert, the human element. Julien leaves behind a tell-tale prop, and upon retrieval, he becomes lodged in a stalled elevator. While this is taking place, small-time hood Louis (Georges Poujouly), with flower shop assistant girlfriend, Véronique (Yori Bertin), steals Julien’s still-running car. Their disconnected path intersects with an older German couple, joining them for a night that takes a murderous turn. As all of this transpires, Florence aimlessly roams the streets, wondering where her lover is, and why, so it seems, his fate has been twisted the way it has. Obstructing the plans of all involved, this ill-fated evening delivers a succession of misunderstandings and misidentifications. It is a night of blind chance and dumb luck, and consented misfortune ultimately concludes the film, as incriminating pictures seal the fates of Florence and Julien (though who exactly took those photos?).
This collapse is not surprising, of course. The deliberation, the planning, the careful enactment, it was all too precarious and covert to proceed without fail. A mistake was inevitable, for Elevator to the Gallows is a film devoted to romantic fatalism, and this resigned impression amplifies the film’s atmospheric rigidity. Grey, ashen photography by Henri Decaë, noted cinematographer for François Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Melville among others, creates a placid backdrop, with characters blending into their environment, merging into the symptomatic melancholic, modern milieu. And beginning with an intense close-up—the film’s striking first shot—the most prominent and arresting object of visual focus is Jeanne Moreau. Moreau had nearly twenty titles to her credit by 1958, most of them insignificant, but in the role of Florence, a character almost nonexistent in Calef’s book, her stardom was assured. Malle and Decaë shoot her disheartened wanderings in chancy yet innovative natural-light, the technical risk paying off with exquisite images of Moreau strolling down the Champs-Élysées, walking cool as ice, sultry, slowly, resolute, traipsing through traffic in a dejected delirium, her vacant face streaked by rain and tears, all to the sound of the film’s celebrated jazz soundtrack. Moreau’s performance is exceptional, enigmatic in a way that foreshadows her appearance in films like Jules and Jim (1962) and Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), and she can’t help but appear glamorous; it’s hard to imagine there were objections to her looks as being anything less than photogenic, in 1958 anyway.
Malle was just 25 when Elevator to the Gallows was released, but his talent was obvious. As Moreau states in a 2005 interview, also on the Criterion disc, “Through him I discovered the cinema … a modern way of communicating with the world.” Certainly, Malle’s climatic rendering enriches Elevator to the Gallows, setting it apart from a standard genre submission. In following these parallel couples with their parallel problems, as they are caught up in an unwittingly shared tragedy, Malle incorporates iconic touchstones—gloves and guns and raincoats and, why not, even an ominous black cat—but at the same time, most notably in the implementation of Miles Davis’ blazing score, he updates the picture with a decidedly contemporary flavor. Enhanced by this musical range of emotional potency, always with his finger on the prevailing Parisian pulse, he conveys a city in flux, with cutting-edge architecture, freeways, motels, all signals of burgeoning post-war vitality.
That’s on the surface, though. Underneath is a lingering tinge of political anxiety. Perhaps less evident to viewers now than contemporary audiences then, the recurrent references to recent global strife situate the film in a defined, fundamental time and place. Clad in a black leather jacket, Louis is the embodiment of a disenchanted youth, heedless and dedicated to romantic whimsy in life (the impromptu theft) and death (an attempted joint suicide). But he is also tarnished by controversial conflict: “My generation,” he says, “has other things on its mind: four years of Occupation, Indochina, Algeria.” Julien, for his part, is a respected ex-Foreign Legion officer, an admirable status that would likely benefit his ascension, had things not been distorted as they are. The film’s noirish pessimism is rife with futility and a forlorn deference to what has already occurred and the unstated acceptance of what has yet to be. Still, there remains obliviousness—a significantly illustrative shot of Julien sitting at a café, unaware of what has happened in his absence, the camera pulling back to reveal police arriving for his arrest—and credulous optimism—“You see,” comments Elizabeth near the end, holding out hope against all odds, “they can’t keep us apart.”
Elevator to the Gallows is presented by Criterion in a beautiful restoration, featuring an interview with Ronet, footage of Davis and Malle, and Malle’s 1954 short, Crazeologie (deriving its jazzy title from the Charlie Parker’s track “Crazeology”). There is also an essay by Terrence Rafferty, which emphasizes an essential, fascinating aspect of not only this film, but all of Malle’s to come. “What’s most striking about Elevator to the Gallows,” he writes, “… is that Malle, having made this almost insolently proficient Série noire thriller, never went anywhere near the genre again.” “To put it another way,” he continues, “Malle spent the four decades of his filmmaking life saying, ‘Been there, done that,’ over and over again, searching constantly for somewhere he hadn’t been and something he hadn’t done.” While a film like Elevator to the Gallows is certainly indebted to prior movies like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), for instance, and itself would serve as a pro-Nouvelle Vague model, “The best way to look at Elevator to the Gallows,” Rafferty notes, “is as an anomaly—as the first in the long series of anomalies that was Louis Malle’s career.” Malle’s subsequent body of work, his documentaries and features, are indeed remarkable for their inconsistencies. In terms of style and subject matter, that is. Superior quality was nearly always a constant.