Classic Corner: Elevator to the Gallows

As Orson Welles once bellowed in a wine commercial, “Mwaah, the French!”

There was a while there when they didn’t just take care of American genres, they gave them back to us better. This was certainly the case with Elevator to the Gallows, the obscenely accomplished 1958 debut picture from director Louis Malle that’s marinated in musty old paperbacks and au courant jazz. It’s a potboiler from the future, a better mousetrap dolled up in U.S. crime movie idioms and bleeding edge, nightclub cool. According to legend, Miles Davis improvised the movie’s dreamy, doom-laden score in an afternoon before a gig. You don’t get much groovier than that.

Malle was something of a square, a kid from a ridiculously wealthy family who never had the street cred of contemporaries like Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut. He bailed on film school before graduation go to work as an intern for Jacques Cousteau, winning a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival when only 24 years old for co-directing “The Silent World.” That same year, he couldn’t believe Jeanne Moreau agreed to star in his first feature. “At the time,” the filmmaker once sighed to an interviewer through a cloud of cigarette smoke, “I had only directed fish.”

He’d written a more typical first feature, something about students and activists his age. Malle threw the script out for commercial considerations (or maybe it just wasn’t very good) adapting instead a Noël Calef crime novel with co-writer Roger Nimier, a clockwork contraption about the perfect murder in which the perpetrator spends most of the movie stuck in the lift. It’s a fiendishly funny scenario, exploring the Kafkaesque nightmare of finding yourself framed for a killing spree that took place while you’re trapped in an elevator across town, having just committed an entirely different crime. Some alibi.

Maurice Ronet stars as an ignoble war hero, fresh from foolhardy French misadventures in Algeria and Indochina, putting a bullet in the brain of his conventionally respectable arms dealer boss in order to run off with the guy’s wife (Moreau) and live happily ever after. Except he forgets something at the crime scene. He also leaves his car idling outside, allowing the dim-bulb gal from the flower shop (Yori Bertin) and her numbskull, rockabilly boyfriend (Georges Poujouly) to run off with his wheels and his gun while he’s stuck in the lift of an office building that’s shut down for the weekend. 

Elevator to the Gallows is a sublime, sicko comedy, which in fine film noir fashion escalates bad situations to worse as if steered by the wrathful hand of an otherwise absent God who has a horrible sense of humor. The intricate, absurdist plot mechanics call to mind early Coen brothers movies (especially Blood Simple) in their cruel logic, punishing the stupid transgressions of errant lovers who hoped for a moment that they might get away with murder. Shit escalates, badly.

Malle puckishly plays with our perceptions throughout, starting the film with an intimate conversation between our illicit couple that only eventually reveals itself to take place over the telephone. (They’re never seen in the same frame until the brutally funny final shot.) The movie is maybe most memorable for spending almost an entire reel with Moreau wandering the Paris streets at night, abandoned and alone. Malle and cinematographer Henri Decaë shoot these scenes with their camera in a baby carriage, the scandalously makeup-free Moreau illuminated only by the lights of the city surrounding her. Quietly revolutionary, it’s one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful passages in any movie of its era, at least until she gets picked up for prostitution.

We don’t often hear Louis Malle mentioned in the roster of great French auteurs, maybe because he was a little too chameleonic and put the needs of his screenplays ahead of his own often perverse preoccupations. But anyone who could zig from Murmur of the Heart and zag to Atlantic City is a formidable filmmaker whose name should be shouted from the rooftops, especially considering his immortal collaborations with Wallace Shawn. My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street are content to let Andre Gregory get gassy playing director in front of the camera, but some of us know there was always a wry Frenchman back there calling the shots. 

Elevator to the Gallows is one of those pitch-perfect debuts, shot in sinewy shadows and documentary daylight without a wasted frame. It can make you furious that the person who made it was only 24 years old at the time. He must have learned a lot from those fish.

“Elevator to the Gallows” is streaming on HBOMax and The Criterion Channel.

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