Elevator to the Gallows
April 19, 2006
After his stint working as Jacques Cousteau’s camera operator, Louis Malle tried to make an autobiographical film but found that no producers were interested in it. A friend of his had read a book called Elevator to the Gallows and suggested that it might make a good movie because thrillers were popular at the time. Malle got a producer interested who in turn recommended casting Jeanne Moreau, a popular B-movie actress at the time. Everything came together for Malle who also managed to get a young Miles Davis to do the film’s score, making this an impressive feature film debut for the director.
Elevator to the Gallows (1957) begins with a murder. Julien Tavernier (Ronet) kills his lover’s husband (Wall) who also happens to be his boss. Julien makes it look like a suicide in a carefully thought out plan but of course not everything goes the way it should. He leaves behind a crucial piece of evidence that could link him to the murder. While he goes back into the building to retrieve it, a young tough (Poujouly) and his girlfriend (Bertin) steal his car.
By chance, Julien’s lover, Florence (Moreau), sees his car go by with the girl in it and assumes that he didn’t go through with their plan and took off with another woman. To make matters worse, Julien gets stuck in an elevator in the building after hours. Malle cuts back and forth from an increasing annoyed Florence (Moreau doing an excellent slow burn that gives way to paranoia and despair) walking the streets of Paris as Miles Davis’ cool jazz score plays on the soundtrack and Julien trying desperately to escape the claustrophobic confines of the elevator. For good measure, Malle also cuts to the young couple in Julien’s stolen car who end up posing as Mr. and Mrs. Tavernier to a tourist couple from Germany.
The fun of watching a film like this is seeing how the characters paint themselves into a corner and then seeing how they try to figure a way out. Malle expertly ratchets up the tension in the elevator scenes as Julien is almost discovered and then almost killed. He then gives Florence’s scenes a melancholic tone as she gets more despondent the longer she goes without hearing from Julien.
None of the characters know what is happening to the others. Only we see and know everything. This approach would influence other murder-gone-wrong thrillers like Blood Simple (1984). Elevator to the Gallows is an expertly made genre film – something of an oddity in Malle’s career who would go on to make intensely personal films like Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987).
“Louis Malle, 1975” is an interview with the director for Canadian T.V. where he talks about Elevator to the Gallows. Malle realized early on that he would have to start out with a commercial film in order to prove himself before he could make a personal film. As always, the director is an eloquent speaker who converses intelligent about a number of topics.
“Jeanne Moreau, 2005” features an interview with this veteran actress. She talks about working with Malle and is well-spoken about the character she played in Elevator and its themes. She gives her impressions of a then young Miles Davis as well.
“Malle and Moreau at Cannes” was recorded for French television at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. They talk about how they first met while Malle recounts how he got Davis to do the score. Moreau speaks about Malle’s direction and how this film changed her career.
“Maurice Ronet” is a 1957 interview for French T.V. just before the actor started work on Elevator. At the time, he was primarily known as a romantic lead and this role called for him to be cold and calculating. Ronet talks about how he got into acting and the passion he has for cinema. He comes across as very personable and eloquent about his craft.
“The Miles Davis Score” examines the landmark soundtrack that the jazz musician composed for Malle’s film. Davis recorded the score in one night and it became what many consider to be an important album in his career. There is footage of him recreating how he scored the movie, which he improvised while watching it. The only surviving musician from that session talks about what it was like working with Davis and provides fascinating insight into the creative process. Finally, there is a well-made documentary on Davis, where his life and career was at the time he recorded the score and how it impacted jazz.
Finally, there is “Crazeologie,” an early student film that Malle made in 1954 and was seen as an homage to Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd.