Monday, April 9, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #189 - Elevator to the Gallows (1958, dir. Louis Malle)

"Anything's good for an alibi. Wives, girlfriends, bartenders, childhood friends, deceived husbands - but not an elevator. That's ridiculous. It's totally harebrained."
 - Commissaire de police

The most succinct way to express how I feel about Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle's feature length directorial debut, is to say that it exudes the essence of cool. It can often be difficult for a director, especially a new director, to innovate within a strict genre such as that of Film Noir. Often such directors will simply rest on the easy and clichéd conventions inherent to the "noir." However, Malle seems to have effortlessly skirted the traps of the genre and created one of the most brilliant and beautiful noir films of all time (I know, I know, a very bold statement, however it's true...).
Within the first 15 minutes of the film a few very specific events occur and choices are made that trigger all of the dark events to follow. Thrown into the middle of our story, the film opens on Florence Carala (stunningly portrayed by Jeanne Moreau) as she professes her love for Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). Through reading the clues left for us we discover that the two are lovers, and they have concocted a plot to kill her husband (Simon Carala, played by Jean Wall), who also happens to be an arms dealer and Tavernier's boss. After they get off the phone Tavernier leaps into action, stealthily making his way to his boss’ office under the guise of giving him a report. He then pulls a gun (Carala's own gun) and kills him, staging the scene to look like a suicide and sneaks back into his office just in time to leave with the only other two people left in the office. In the moment that he is about to be home free and drive to meet up with his love, he notices that he's left the hook and rope that he used to scale the wall to get into his boss’ office, thus negating the carefully left suicide scene. He rushes back into the building, leaving his car running, to try and grab the evidence, only to be trapped in the elevator as the attendant shuts down the power. Just as he is being trapped, a small time thief, Louis (Georges Poujouly), and his girlfriend Veronique (played by Yori Bertin, who has a bit of a crush on Julien/Mr. Tavernier) hop in his car and take off, running away to their own absurd sequence of events, but not before Florence sees Julien's car driving away with a young girl in the passenger seat.
In that brief few minutes three separate yet surreally tied narratives commence; Julien Tavernier stuck in the elevator frantically working against time as it seems to stand still, Louis/Veronique as they descend madly into their criminal downward spiral, and Florence as she walks sullenly through her desolate thoughts and fears. The future of all of them is uncertain, the only certainty is the inevitable passage of time. I won't spoil the suspense for you, you'll simply have to watch to see what comes of these three intertwined stories.
Other than this fantastic and brilliantly peculiar story and Malle's masterful development of the tale, there are many other reasons that this film has made its way firmly into my personal top ten. However, in the interest of brevity I will only elaborate on a few of those things. First and most prominently, the film was shot by the French cinematographer Henri Decaë, who crafted a gritty and yet luminous aesthetic, playing with the conventions of noir while metaphorically utilizing a novel lens. Secondly Jeanne Moreau's portrayal of a reflective woman scorned, which has become one of the most lauded performances of this era of French cinema. Thirdly, though the use of music is somewhat sparing, it is certainly impactful when utilized, since it happened to be improvised by none other than Miles Davis and a few other musicians in the heat of a single night in Paris. If you look further into the story behind the soundtrack it only solidifies that this film exudes "cool." Fourth, and finally, I love the fact that I always find myself at the edge of my seat the entire time as the characters are hurled blindly through the insane narrative, the suspense in this film is killer and you can practically cut the tension with a knife!
In the end, this is a film that screams to be seen. I can't fully provide a sufficient description of why you must see Elevator to the Gallows so I will simply wrap up this edition of I'd Love To Turn You On-At The Movies. I implore you to take the time to watch this important film!
-          Edward Hill

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