Elevator to the Gallows

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Louis Malle’s 1958 film is convoluted noir with splashes of doomed romanticism, heavily ironic and more entertaining than profound. Because it features French New Wave poster girl Jeanne Moreau and an improvised score by Miles Davis, it’s acquired the patina of a really hip nugget of ’50s Euro-cool. But there are some grindingly slow spots and a silly steel-trap ending that leaves you wondering how all the interested parties ended up in the same place at the same time.

Julien (Maurice Ronet) is a rugged man of the world, a lady-killer and former Foreign Legionnaire who does possibly shady work for his boss, an obscenely rich war profiteer called Mr. Carala. He’s also having an affair with Carala’s wife Florence (Moreau), and the two decide to get rid of the old geezer.

Julien shoots him and makes it look like a suicide, but as he’s leaving the scene of the crime he gets stuck in an elevator. While he’s trapped, a young punk and his girlfriend steal his car and use it in a serious crime. Meanwhile, Florence wanders through the Parisian night wondering what the hell happened to Julien.

Filmed in crisp black and white, the movie has three distinct modes. Florence’s journey through Paris after dark is expressionistic; Julien’s attempt to escape from the elevator is methodical and reminiscent of French filmmaker Robert Bresson (Malle was assistant director on Bresson’s A Man Escaped in 1956); and the scene with the two delinquents anticipates the loosed-limbed approach of Jean-Luc Godard in the 1959 keynote New Wave film, Breathless.

It’s an early indication of the kind of protean filmmaker that Malle would become, as he went on to create a series of films that emphasize his versatility rather than any coherent directorial vision. It’s also why Elevator doesn’t quite hold together, moving from the poetic to the bland. Despite the sublime iconography of Moreau’s bruised beauty and Miles’ doleful musical commentary, it has too many pedestrian stretches to be in the same league as the best French noirs.

 

In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 9 and 10, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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