Elevator to the Gallows (France, 1958) * * *
D: Louis Malle
He has committed the perfect crime--as Hitchcock would say, as when he would lean out of his chair toward Truffaut, excitedly rehearsing a scenario for his young filmmaker friend. Our murderer has thrown a grappling hook and scaled the outer wall of the office building, gone into his boss's office, and shot him through the head. He wears gloves, and the gun belongs to his boss, and he now places that gun in the victim's hand. He closes the door so as to leave it locked from the inside. Now all he needs to do is leave the murder scene without any trace of his presence, so the victim is an apparent suicide, and no one else could have come and gone. But just as he is about to leave the office at the end of the working day--and run off with the boss's wife, who will be waiting for him--he realizes he's left the grappling hook and rope hanging from the balcony. He takes the elevator, but the security guard turns off the power to the building in the evening, and the murderer becomes trapped. Outside, his car is stolen by two young lovers, who themselves will...but that is revealing too much.
I don't know if Hitchcock saw Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows, but it's a premise he would have embraced, and perhaps would have filmed, if he'd gotten the rights instead of a 24-year old Frenchman who had never made a feature-length film. Reportedly, the novel was trash--or at least Malle has said--but he cast Jeanne Moreau as the boss's wife and had Miles Davis score the film. Some call this the first French New Wave film; it predates The 400 Blows and Breathless, but it's not as flashy or as stylish as Truffaut and Godard's films. It's in the tradition of Jules Dassin's Rififi--it's French Film Noir. But a curious thing happens. After the first fifteen minutes or so, and our murderer suddenly becomes trapped in the elevator, the film noir hits a wall and becomes a parody. His car is stolen by two lovers; the boy takes his name, occupation, and history (a soldier), the girl pretends to be his wife, and after rear-ending the car of some vacationing German tourists, they party with them. And while all this is happening, Jeanne Moreau, in a part which hardly puts her acting to the test, wanders the streets turning down the advances of other men and speaking in a voice-over, rapturously declaring her immortal love for the murderer, even though he has apparently run off with another woman (for she saw the young girl hanging out the passenger window of his car). She struts with her permanent Moreau frown--she was the Bardot for the New Wave, until Godard just went out and hired Bardot for Contempt; she's much more complex in, say, Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid, but it doesn't matter. This is her debut on the international scene. She's a movie star because Malle films her in complete awe. She has nothing to do at all, however, until the final scene, which is so very French that when FIN flies up to the screen it's earned.
Despite being trapped in that elevator, eventually there's more murder, and more complications, and a tidy, satisfying ending. Perhaps it's New Wave on a technicality, but I think ultimately its heart is in noir. The jazz plays on the soundtrack, but apart from a brief improvisation, the film hasn't become the jazz, which is what happened when Godard first played the notes. No, Malle's interest was in character and fate and story, not style. He'd be more natural in the coming decades. For now, this is a very impressive first film, and a clever one at that.
We watched this at the Orpheum in Madison on a Friday night, with a buzzing of customers eating dinner in the cafe outside the theater doors, and a man rustling in his jacket and laughing heartily at the film's ironies while everyone else sat in too-respectful silence. The lobby by the ticket-stand had a peculiar smell that I could only identify as the comic book store in Milwaukee that I used to reverently visit when I was a kid to pick up Conan comics with scandalous covers. The whole experience was bathed in this kind of warm, displaced nostalgia, even though the print wasn't framed properly, and many foreheads were cut off, like victims of the gallows in the poster's logo.