Back to the Beginning: Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows

louis malle's elevator to the gallows

As homegrown as our classics may seem, the American cinema has been a curious breeding ground for other nations. While our filmmakers have created numerous dialogs with other national styles, foreign directors often dive in and weave themselves right into our fabric.

This emigration may have resulted from the solidification of film genres in the early American studio system. During this time, Hollywood welcomed an influx of European directors and stars, many of whom created some of our best works. Fritz Lang, the German master behind the expressionist works Metropolis (1926) and M (1931), became a reliable studio director, as did his fellow countrymen Robert Siodmak (The Killers [1946]) and the versatile Austrian Fred Zinneman (High Noon [1952], From Here to Eternity [1953]). Another Austrian-born filmmaker, Billy Wilder, produced masterpieces of various Hollywood genres--from the noir masterwork, Double Indemnity (1944), to the comedies Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960)--that left biographer Kevin Lally to describe him “as American as a home run.”

As a young filmmaker, Roman Polanski showed a Euro sensibility with his artful Knife in the Water (1962) and his psychological horror Repulsion (1965; with Catherine Deneuve). But when America beckoned, Polanski arrived to redefine the American neo-noir with his masterwork, Chinatown (1974), in which Jake Gittes (the bandage-nosed Jack Nicholson) investigates a conspiracy that reveals both governmental and familial corruption.

With such a strong tradition established in the early American studio, the American genres continued to inspire cinemas overseas through the post-war era. As the French cinema came into its own, soon to develop the Nouvelle Vague (i.e., New Wave) in the 1960s, American sensibility proved to be its launching pad. A number of French crime films appeared through the 1950s in response to what the French themselves labeled as “film noir” in America.

France’s treatment of crime helped launch the career of Louis Malle, a French stylist who later found himself Americanized after directing Pretty Baby (1978; a tale of prostitution in New Orleans), Atlantic City (1980) with Burt Lancaster, and My Dinner with Andre (1981), a fictional dinner discussion between two New York eccentrics, theater producer Andre Gregory and playwright/actor/director Wallace Shawn. While Malle eventually headed for the states (though he later returned to his homeland), his 1958 psychological exercise, Elevator to the Gallowsir?t=identitytheor 20&l=as2&o=1&a=B000E5LEVA&camp=217145&creative=399349 (re-released by Rialto Pictures in 2005, and on DVD by the Criterion Collection), works as a landmark in France’s redefinition of the crime film.

In true noir form, Malle infuses every step of Elevator with a psychological approach. The film opens with a noir convention as Malle’s femme fatale, the married Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), portentously talks on a public phone with an offscreen lover. Not quite your average home wrecker, her lover Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) turns out to be an ex-paratrooper employed by her husband.

Julien’s military training comes in handy when he scales down the building to enter the husband’s office. We learn of the lovers’ plan, which is not revealed in the opening minutes, when Julien murders his boss to frame his suicide. The mini-convolutions within the murder--Julien’s concealed entry through a window, murdering the boss with his own weapon (stolen earlier)--are examples of a French New Waver having fun with the crime genre.

Though Malle’s pacing keeps you in Julien’s tense point of view, nothing here prepares you for a set of coincidences that both define this film and set up the bulk of its plot. As Julien leaves the building the power is cut off, and he gets stuck in the elevator mid-floor. Originally translated as Frantic for American audiences, the film’s new English title captures the varied nuances of “descent” as Julien goes from skilled tactician to doomed lover with the halt of machinery.

While the plot seems arrested with his failed escape, Malle shifts focus to Florence, who awaits her lover and news that all went as planned. But as she waits, her suspicions arise, especially when she sees Julien’s car drive by with a florist shopgirl visible in the passenger’s seat. Florence is unaware that Julien’s car was lifted by a rebellious youth and his shopkeeper girlfriend after Julien left it idling. Malle interweaves the two thieves into a plot that leaves Julien a serious victim of cabin fever for a time.

Meanwhile, Florence walks the streets in paranoid anticipation, not knowing if her beloved has fled, or if her husband is still alive. As Florence, Moreau haunts the shadowy Parisian streets with a walk and countenance of vulnerability that only a major letdown can create. Her looks and situation make her into a perfect fit for the “icy blonde” that Hitchcock often cast as a victim, though Moreau captures the emotions that this prototype represses.

In a secondary plot focused on the fleeing young lovers, Malle shows an eye for composition in some wide-angle shots that use space to reflect tension. These characters work as interesting predecessors to the couple in Godard’s groundbreaking Breathless (1960), who in turn inspired Bonnie and Clyde (1967), itself essential to the New American Cinema of the late 1960s.

The third act is deliberately paced a la French aesthetic but makes for a twisty yarn to please noir and crime fans. While Malle takes time out to lay bare the emotions of his characters, even if it means occasionally halting the plot, he’s sure to move things forward at the climax. As usual, the Criterion Collection provides a clear transfer that allows this film to feel like a contemporary, reflective exercise in noir.

miles davis soundtrack for elevator to the gallows

Davis’ original soundtrack for Gallows.

Along with a crisp print, Criterion includes a second disc packed with extras. Two interviews--one a new retrospective with Jeanne Moreau, and the other from 1975 with Malle--cover plenty for fans and newcomers to the film. A special treat comes in the form of an interview with Malle and Moreau together at the 1994 Cannes film festival. Having worked together on a number of films, during which they had a brief romance, Malle and Moreau show what kind of relation the two had on- and off-screen. Malle even notes that the scenes of Florence searching the streets for her lover--shot from a baby carriage and lit with only the available streetlights--“made” the film as great as it is.

But Malle fans will never deny the contributions of another great artist. The director hired Miles Davis to score the film, and he did so through inspired improvisation. A half-hour documentary included on the disc, Miles Goes Modal, discusses how Davis elevated the film with an exceptionally moody score and even solidified his new sound in the process. (Malle’s choice was an inspiration to other filmmakers: a year after Gallows, Duke Ellington scored Otto Preminger’s classic courtroom drama, Anatomy of a Murder). Also included is footage of Miles screening the film with trumpet in hand to create emotional waves for Malle’s final cut. This extra, along with an early absurdist Malle short, fills out a very impressive double-disc set.

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