Guest post by Caleb Allison.
Even as Louis Malle’s taut crime thriller, Elevator to the Gallows (1958), descends to dark, fatalistic depths it simmers with a kinetic futurism that portends the mischievous talents of the French New Wave. Blending equal parts Hitchcockian thriller and methodical Bressonian precision, the 24-year-old Malle concocts a noirish thriller that clearly sought to cut ties with an older brand of French cinema. Foregoing any kind of modest piecemeal approach, Malle finds avenues for innovation in every element of the film. From its decidedly modern locations to the improvisational jazz score by Miles Davis to the stunning black-and-white night cinematography by Henri Decaë, the film reveals a French modernity not even realized yet. It remains so vividly cool, and make no mistake, this is one of the coolest films of all time, because it is bursting at every seam with a style that was yet to be named, codified, and repeated. It is on the cusp of cool, and, well, that’s the coolest place to be.
Having started and dropped out of film school, begun a three-month internship for Jacques Cousteau that turned into three years, and assisted Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped (1956), it’s fair to say that Malle’s technical and stylistic education primed him for a drastic new approach to filmmaking for his debut feature. Elevator to the Gallows rests on a murder-for-love plot, adapted from a Noël Calef novel of the same name, in which two passionate lovers, played by Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet, conspire to kill her husband and his boss. Taking cues from American film noir, Malle methodically unravels their well-laid plans, and with it, any hope for their future love. With this exquisitely grim setup Malle reveals a new French futurism bursting with a visual and sonic energy so potent as to give shape to a film star, a New Wave, and a budding auteur. Not one to shy away from politics, Malle’s futurism is deftly balanced by searing political critique in characters and context marked by France’s military engagements in Indochina and Algeria, grounding the film in the realities of the moment.
In a clever act of framing, the film opens with a lavish close-up of Jeanne Moreau, the type that makes one a movie star, confessing her love to Ronet. We assume he’s just in front of her, but as the camera slowly pulls back, we notice she’s actually talking to him from a phonebooth. The camera continues to pull back even further on Ronet, and it’s revealed that he is in one of Paris’ new high-rises — geometric, austere, modern. At one point I can never quite anticipate, their conversation is briefly overtaken by the swooning, lovelorn trumpet of Miles Davis. It screams of loneliness and despair, and when married to Jeanne Moreau’s nocturnal wanderings later in the film, transforms a simple stroll down the Champs-Élysées into one of the defining moments of the French New Wave. Tragically, this conversation over the phone is as close as our lovers will get for the rest of the film; always seeking but never finding each other.
The score by Miles Davis has become the stuff of legend; shifting between elegiac swoons and frenzied combustions, it solidified Moreau as a star and bolsters the film’s futuristic style. Malle was a huge jazz buff and while editing the film heard Miles was performing at a Paris club for several weeks. Malle pounced, and while hesitant at first because he was missing his usual bandmates, Davis agreed to score the film. On a tight schedule at the club, he took his one night off to improvise a score after seeing the film just twice. Malle, Davis and his impromptu band worked from ten or eleven at night to five in the morning and gave us one of the most perfectly realized improvisations of all time. Jazz becomes the film’s moderator, bursting into scenes to escalate its capricious intensity or sliding in like a panther to push our lovers’ despair to new depths.
Contributing to Malle’s futurism are also the various locations used in the film. The high-rise, where Ronet works, was one of only a handful in Paris at the time. Malle strategically uses it as a symbol of France’s rising modernity even as he critiques it, by making it home base for Moreau’s husband and his depraved business dealings. It also becomes a prison for Ronet — let’s just say the elevator of the title is less metaphor than nightmarish reality. Bresson’s influence on Malle is most evident in these elevator scenes. It’s a battle of wits between man and elevator, and as silly as that sounds, Malle crafts them into the most tense and exciting set pieces of the entire film. One could nearly transplant them into Bresson’s A Man Escaped without skipping a beat.
There is also a critical sequence at a swanky motel. Yup, that’s swanky motel with an m. The architectural sensation and highway companion was another modern marvel at the time, and according to Malle, France had just a single motel during production. One character, thrilled at the prospect of staying at a motel, claims she’s only read about them, with their separate cabins and attached garages. Gee whiz! Yet once again, this modern locale is host to a grim encounter that only thickens the mud our characters sink further in. A host of new technologies are also given significant screen time in the film. Ronet’s secretary marvels over an electric pencil sharpener, a pushbutton convertible top attracts a fateful car thief, and a miniature spy camera becomes the film’s ruinous lynchpin. The meat-and-potato tools of the film are all too familiar though — lighters, gloves, guns, knives, oh, and a grappling hook! The opening sequence plays out like a Bond novel (Dr. No wouldn’t premiere until 1963), with Ronet using his military skills to scale a building and slink into his target’s office.
Far from benevolent, Malle’s futurism in Elevator to the Gallows finds form in architecture, technologies, and jazz which all conspire to trap, isolate, and separate its characters. For all its sleek gadgets and novel locales, Malle’s France of the future harbors nothing but violence and despair for its inhabitants, but damn if it doesn’t look and sound cool.
Caleb Allison loves going out to the movies, especially when they are menacing, cryptic, or horrific. A PhD student at Indiana University, he splits his time between scholarly research and filmmaking. He has a passion for the look and feel of super 8mm and 16mm film and uses them whenever the universe aligns, and will watch anything by Andrei Tarkovsky, Terrence Malick, or John Carpenter anytime, anywhere.