22 February 2007

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Grade: A-
Directed by: Louis Malle
Written by: Louis Malle & Roger Nimier

David Cook writes, “some critics…dismiss [Malle] as an elegant stylist with little substance at the core.” Superficiality may be a fair charge to level at his debut film, Elevator to the Gallows, but a stylist so elegantly spot-on doesn’t warrant that kind of derision.

Elevator, one of the earliest examples of Nouvelle Vague filmmaking, is exactly what you’d want and expect an old French movie to be: supercool, from its crisp black and white Parisscapes to its Miles Davis score. (Davis is, of course—and not coincidentally—the progenitor of cool, having begat it from the birth canal of his trumpetic bell.) Julien, played by the steely-eyed Maurice Ronet, is himself so cool, “covered in medals and scars”, that he’s not even afraid of parking tickets! Watch him take one off his windshield like he doesn’t even care! (Haughty contemporary audiences may find themselves sniggering at the picture's un-ironic sincerity, but they laugh only at their own jaded selves.)

Julien, in lascivious cahoots with the boss’ wife, kills said boss in a well-crafted murder scheme. Malle, rather than show the fatal gunshot on screen, cuts to a secretary electrically sharpening a pencil, at once answering why no one heard the shot—those old machines were pretty loud—as well as ironically commenting on the absence of solemnity from modern death. A black cat then impossibly passes by the window, crossing Julien’s path and letting him, as well as the audience, know that it’s all pretty much over for him. The filmmaking proves to be more meticulous than the execution of the crime, as Julien, about to meet his freshly widowed love, realizes he made a stupid mistake and must return to his office, the scene of the crime. While riding up in the elevator, the building’s super cuts the power for the night, trapping Julien in that merciless, existential box. Merde! And we’re only twenty minutes into the picture!

What is a Frenchman to do in such a hopeless situation but chainsmoke cigarettes? Meanwhile his life disintegrates in the streets of Paris: two kids steal his car and unwittingly frame him for a serious crime, while his mistress is mistakenly convinced, as she wanders through the Paris underground, that her man has chickened-out and run-off with a flower girl.

Masterfully entertaining in the most enthralling way, despite its probable protagonist being improbably holed up in an elevator, Malle’s film is a suspenseful, clever, and cynically ironic statement on the inescapable irreversibility of fate. It’s a quick and easy ride, worth the fare for the scenery alone.

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