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

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 Gallows
(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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