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Elevator to the Gallows

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Feb 13, 2018
Elevator to the Gallows

Louis Malle's first feature, 1958's "Elevator to the Gallows," is a noirish thriller so full of ludicrous twists and overblown emotions that it borders on black comedy. Passionate romantic entanglements lead to murder and attempted suicide; youthful disaffection has much the same result. Underlying everything is a macho sensibility gone awry with bad judgment, bad timing and damnable bad luck.

Jeanne Moreau headlines as Florence Carala, the blonde, beautiful wife of a wealthy and influential arms dealer named Simon Carala. Maurice Ronet plays Julien Tavernier, one of Simon's employees - a former paratrooper "covered in medals and scars" who's not afraid to get rough in order to get things done. When the task at hand is liberating Florence from her husband, Tavernier doesn't hesitate; he deploys his lethal skills as readily as he does his spy camera and grappling hook.

But a moment's distraction leads to a mistake that Tavernier only realizes he's made well past the fact. In trying to correct it, he ends up trapped in an elevator and the prospect of escaping in less than about 36 hours are uncertain. Meantime, a couple of kids - flower shop girl Véronique (Yori Bertin) and her leather jacket-wearing boyfriend, Louis (Georges Poujouly) - take advantage of the fact that Tavernier has left his car running and go on a joyride. They also get into his toys, namely the spy camera and a gun he's left stowed in the glove box. Spotting Tavernier's car racing up the street and past the coffee shop where she's supposed to meet him once the killing is done, Florence assumes that Tavernier has chickened out and taken off with a new girl.

What follows is a long night of escalating poor choices as Tavernier struggles to escape the elevator, Florence wanders the streets of Paris in the rain, and the two kids find out the hard way that flirting with a crime can lead too easily into irreversible life-altering - and life-ending - mistakes.

"Elevator to the Gallows" perches at the cusp between the tough teen angst of one decade (that leather jacket is nothing if not a wink in James Dean's direction) and the youth-led turbulence of the next. As Maille himself observes, "This film from the end of the '50s was announcing the '60s."

On a larger scale, the movie nods at (though doesn't preach about) social conditions that enfold wars born from colonialism (Indochina and Algiers, specifically; this film is set in between), with everything from Caras' weapons dealing and lunching with government officials to a security guard's limp feeling like a reflection on the costs of colonialism. But if politics is the grounding for the film's ability to hit hard, its style - including the cinematography and the semi-improvised Miles Davis jazz score - is what propels the project.

The special features on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition include an episode of "Parlons Cinéma" from 1975 in which Louis Mallet talks about his early career, starting with his work on the film "The Silent World" film with Jacques Cousteau and then working as an assistant to Robert Bresson. (His main message, repeated at least twice? "Coming from film school means you know nothing!")

There's also a 2005 interview with Moreau, who looks back on her four films with Malle (as well as her romantic relationship with the director) and tuts at the way modern cinema shows everything in a manner that's far too graphic and callous.

Malle and Moreau are both on hand to offer their thoughts in a "Le cercle de minuit" segment set at Cannes in 1993 (where Malle was president of the jury).

Maurice Ronet appears in a 1957 interview for the TV program "Reflets de Cannes," with interviewer François Chalais peppering him with pugnacious queries.

Davis' score is examined in a suite of 3 featurettes, one of which was recorded in 1957, even as Davis was in the process of improvising along to the film. (Malle is also interviewed here about Davis and the score.) There' also an interview from 2005 with pianist René Urtreger.

Rounding out the extras is a short Malle made while in film school, an absurdist film called "Crazeology."

Do you need to acquire this definitive edition of a striking film that is also groundbreaking for stylistic and technical reasons? That depends. Do you love movies? There's your answer.

"Elevator to the Gallows"

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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