Elevator to the Gallows lights its fuse when most suspense films are about to explode. Louis Malle's 1958 thriller begins with adulterous lovers Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) having one last, fervent phone call before he carries out a seemingly foolproof plan to murder her war-profiteering husband.
Tavernier's scheme, implemented in a sterile Parisian skyscraper, goes off like clockwork -- save for a minor mistake that sets off a chain reaction of crime and coincidence. Twists of fate -- including a stalled elevator and a stolen convertible -- link the lovers to a shop girl and her juvenile delinquent boyfriend (Yori Bertin and Georges Poujouly), who prove as reckless and as doomed as the older couple. Chance also contrives to keep Florence and Tavernier apart, and with the film's start-in-the-middle structure, our imaginations must fill in the blanks about their relationship.
Instead of the burning, murderous passions that fuel most film noir, Elevator to the Gallows dwells on black-and-white images of isolation: Florence spends much of the film wandering bereft down empty streets and into Edward Hopper-style nightspots that run the gamut from swanky to seedy. Miles Davis plays a mournful trumpet on the soundtrack, conjuring a smoky atmosphere that's at once lonely and almost seductively hip.
Elevator to the Gallows inaugurated the career of renowned French filmmaker Malle, then 24 years old, who begins by drawing out the tension along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock before settling down to a more ruminative mood. The film anticipates the stylish crime stories of the French new wave, a cinematic movement that took traditional screen narrative apart, then put it together again. At times, Malle's techniques feel heavy-handed, such as the interrogation room that looks like a featureless void, or the extreme close-ups on Moreau, accompanied by desperate voice-overs.
The legacy of World War II hangs over the film like a shroud, influencing everything from Tavernier's lethal training as a paratrooper to the young couple's self-destructive ideals, to even the naiveté of a pair of ill-fated German tourists. Despite the presence of dogged detectives and attorneys, Elevator to the Gallows suggests that the war left Europe's moral center in rubble, and no one bothered to rebuild it. Opens Fri., Sept. 23. Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. HHHII
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