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Saturday Night Cinema: Elevator to the Gallows

5

Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is Louis Malle’s first fiction feature, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) – a classic European film noir with an irresistible score by Miles Davis.

The feature-film debut of famed director Louis Malle is an interesting, modern film noir with the classic theme of lovers plotting to kill the husband and make it look like suicide (reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice). Jeanne Moreau, as Florence Carala, gives an astonishing performance, perverse but naive as she leads her young lover down a path that can only lead to doom for both of them. Malle and his cinematographer Henri Decae make extensive use of Paris at night, giving the film the feel of claustrophobia and desperation reminiscent of the classic noir films. The excellent score by Miles Davis adds to the entire effect of this mystery thriller. ~ Linda Rasmussen, Rovi
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Despite its fatalistic title, Louis Malle’s splendid 1958 Parisian noir Elevator to the Gallows still marks an ascent to immortality six decades later, especially for a then-24-year-old French auteur making his confident feature debut and the only genre exercise of his career.

Yet the film also launched its ever-elegant star Jeanne Moreau, unforgettably shot by Henri Decaë and lit by the lamps and storefront windows along the Champs-Élysées. The cherry on top is the smoky, melancholic score by jazz titan Miles Davis and crew, recorded in a single session just two years before he would drop Kind of Blue.

Newly restored, the film’s alchemic blend of Bressonian rigor, Hitchcockian suspense, and overall proto–Nouvelle Vague cool more than compensates for its straightforward plotting, based on a trifling policier by Noël Calef. Moreau’s illicit lover (Maurice Ronet), having just staged the murder of her businessman husband (and his boss) as a suicide, circles back to the scene of the crime to dispose of leftover evidence before finding himself trapped in a you-know-what. Meanwhile, a teen hoodlum (Georges Poujouly) and his lover (Yori Bertin) steal the killer’s car and his identity (an Algerian war veteran!), and the ill-fated fallout from everyone’s misdeeds plays out as stylish screen poetry.

Though hardly as humanistic or naturalistic as Malle’s later work, it’s undeniably crackling entertainment that’ll have you reaching for a pack of Gauloises. (Village Voice)

Louis Malle’s first fiction feature, based on Noel Calef’s 1956 novel, occupies a very interesting space. It qualifies as film noir for its appropriation of US postwar cinema in its tale of lovers gone bad, but also heralds the imminent arrival of the French new wave. The director was in his mid-20s at the time and clearly using the crime-thriller genre (something he never returned to) as a testing ground and not a strict template. Perhaps that explains why his film is such a melting pot of influences, drawing not only on Hitchcock but also the Master of Suspense’s overseas admirers, including Henri-Georges Clouzot and his Les Diaboliques.

As in that film, the story concerns a conspiracy to murder. Ex-Foreign Legion soldier Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a veteran of French military misadventures in Algeria and Indochina, is planning to kill his boss, who is also his lover’s husband. On paper, the plan is seamless – Tavernier secures his alibis and enters his victim’s office unseen, by means of a rope – but things soon get messy. On returning to the crime scene to retrieve a key piece of evidence, Tavernier finds himself trapped in the elevator, leaving his car parked outside with the keys in the ignition.

Although its elements point towards nailbiting tension, this isn’t so much what Lift to the Scaffold is about; it draws more on the blanket fatalism of film noir rather than the savage irony so often associated with the genre. Key to this is Jeanne Moreau as Tavernier’s lover, Florence; in the film’s signature sequence her man fails to turn up, so she walks the streets trying vainly to find him. Filmed on the fly without professional lighting, accompanied only by Miles Davis’s brilliant, melancholy score, these few minutes capture the bleak and beautiful essence of Malle’s film. DW

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