Criterion Cuts: “Elevator to the Gallows”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

After last week’s giant effort in tackling all those Hanzo movies, I figured it’d be a nice change of pace to not only go to something smaller, but something I’ve seen. Today’s movie was one that I watched a few years ago and remembered really loving. An obvious choice, then, for this project? Well, yes and no.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Two lovers, a man and a woman, plan to kill the woman’s husband. He just so happens to also be the man’s boss. The man, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) has an efficient, elegant plan. He uses a rope and hook to climb from his balcony up to his boss’ without being seen. There, he shoots his boss and arranges the room to look like a suicide, climbing back down just in time to intercept one his his business associates in his own office. The perfect plan, except that when he and his friend leave the room at the end of the day together he remembers he left the hook dangling on the balcony. Racing inside, he slips unnoticed into the elevator just in time for the superintendent to shut down the elevator and the building for the weekend, trapping Julien inside.

What would be the entire plot of another movie is the first 15 minutes of Louis Malle’s debut film, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. The movie itself is an interesting straddling of the line between film noir and the not-quite-formed concept of French New Wave cinema, the plot wrapped up in concepts about self-destruction and deep expansive social ennui that emerged out of the latter genre when it broke out large several years later. But historical context aside, Elevator offers plenty to dig into here for a first-time director, even despite how conventional the base story can be.

Julien’s car, which he had just about driven off in before remembering that he left evidence, is stolen by a young thief Louis and his girlfriend Veronique. They drive off, looting through his car where they find the gun he used and a small spy camera. Their theft goes unnoticed, but the car is spotted driving away with a young woman inside by Florence Carala, the woman Julien was absconding away with. Florence (Jeanne Moreau) begins to try to piece together just what happened to Julien, as she worries whether he ran off with another woman or if something bad had happened to him in the murder attempt.

The crime scene, seen through the peephole of the door locked from the inside.

The plot here splits off into three separate places. The first, and most obvious one, is Julien’s struggle to get out of the elevator without having to alert any authorities. This also involves dealing with a patrolling night watchman and trying to climb up and down the elevator shaft, all mostly in vain. It’s a claustrophobic, isolated pot boiled threat of plot, but it is also easily the most conventionally noir. It is most interesting in opposition to the other two threads of story, more than in and of itself. If this was the entirety of the movie, it would simply be a curiosity more than a movie worthy of remembrance or discussion.

The second plot involves Louis and Veronique racing off in Julien’s stolen car. This is the most New Wave of the three stories, young lovers supposedly being pursued, trying to live as much life as they can in the limited time they’ve got. This same plot, expanded of course and with the elaboration of new concepts of how to shoot a movie, forms the basis of the first landmark New Wave film Breathless just two years later. Louis and Veronique manage to race an older German couple in France on vacation, and the two groups end up meeting in a hotel and throwing an impromptu party. Louis pretends to be Julien, which the German man sees right through but is seemingly ambivalent about. Later that night, Louis tries to steal the German’s car for beating him in their race, and when the German tries to stop him shoots both of them with Julien’s gun.

This is obviously the most self-destructive of the three, as Louis and Veronique both realize what they’re doing at each step is going to be their undoing but don’t really seem to care much about the consequences. They are living in the moment, and that’s seemingly enough to override any sense of danger or consequence. This kind of brash, impulse hero is about to litter French cinema for the next decade, but here it is tempered by a sense of conventional moral storytelling. After they murder the tourists, Veronique decides that rather than go to prison they should kill themselves so nobody can separate them, and the two of them swallow a bottlefull of pills in an attempted suicide.

This type of scene is probably one of the most uniformly French New Wave images in all of cinema.

The final story, though, is what really stands out in this movie. Jeanne Moreau’s jilted conspiratorial murderess Florence spends the night wandering the streets of Paris, trying to figure out what happened to her lover without giving too much away about what they had done. Moreau, slowly dissolving from carefully made up typical cinematic beauty to a more natural, careworn version of a woman on film than is usually seen, fills these quieter, more nuanced scenes with the power of an actress who knows how to do much with very little.

Malle went on to make The Lovers with Moreau after this, which catapulted her to stardom (and will undoubtedly show up in this series sooner or later), but that magic is here already. This is certainly a more feminist approach to women on film than noir or French cinema often showed before this, or even regularly showed after. She is proud and confident, carefully maintaining a sense of propriety and elegance even when she starts looking more and more frazzled, bags under her eyes and hair disarray from a night spent out in the city. And it’s her that provides the thread that unites the other two stories again into a cohesive ending, bringing every event back around with a startling tidiness and finality that gives the movie a final, fatalistic kick.

I started this article out by talking about how much I liked it the first time around, and upon revisiting it three years and nearly a thousand movies later I mostly stand by that, but my appreciation of it is muted by the acknowledgement that a third of it is simply okay, and that it works better as an example of era transition in cinema than it does as a great movie in its own right. Not that that’s in any way bad, mind you, but it’s a different kind of appreciation. Either way, it’s absolutely worth watching on either level, entertaining and beautiful.

The best part of the movie, by far, is also the quietest.

Oh, and I almost forgot! The soundtrack is by Miles Davis. Which doesn’t have much bearing on the film itself but is a masterful performance nonetheless. I’d be a monster not to mention it, as it’s the kind of thing worth seeing the movie for alone. The soundtrack is mournful and amazingly powerful for a movie that would typically call for a more conventional composition. Elevator to the Gallows absolutely has the best trumpet in film. Sorry, spaghetti western fanfares.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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