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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Elevator to the Gallows

Yesterday the world of the arts got a double dose of grief--it was announced the Sam Shepard died last Thursday, and Jeanne Moreau died that day. Moreau was a great actress of French films, and I hadn't realized how many films of hers I'd seen: Diary of a Chambermaid, The Trial, Going Places, La Notte, The Bride Wore Black, and her most famous role, in Truffaut's Jules and Jim. One of her early successes was Louis Malle's 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows, which I had wanted to see for a long time. Through the magic of Amazon Prime I was able to see it right then and there.

Elevator to the Gallows is a key film in the French New Wave. It takes the American noir form (which the French loved and named) and made it into something European. The look of the picture is not quite Hollywood, not quite avant-garde, but a happy place in-between. There are many great shots, proving Malle had a great eye for not only story-telling, but enhancing drama.

The film is a murder story. A businessman, Maurice Ronet, is having an affair with his boss's wife, and they've conspired to kill him and make it look like suicide. Ronet climbs a floor of his office building with a grappling hook, does the deed, and makes his escape. Then everything goes to hell. He's in his sports car when he looks up and realized he left the rope. He dashes back in, gets in the elevator, but the doorman, who doesn't see him, thinks the building is empty and shuts off the power, trapping Ronet.

If that weren't enough, he'd left his car running, so a delinquent and his girl, who works at a flower shop, get in for a joy ride. They have his car, his coat, and his gun. They check into a motel using his name. I'll stop there.

The film opens (and closes) on a tight closeup of Moreau. She had a fabulous face for the movies. Her lips were in a natural pout, and her skin seems to glisten. She sees the youths drive by, and recognizes the car, and thinks that Ronet has run off with the flower shop girl. She spends the night stalking across the streets of Paris, visiting his haunts. Clearly, this film is one of those that would be rendered impossible to make because of cell phones.

At this point the film breaks into three threads: Ronet in the elevator, trying to take it apart or climb down the cable (this scene won't be pleasant for agoraphobics); Moreau wandering the streets; and the two youths, who party with a jovial German couple. One of the great things about the story is that I had no idea where it was going, although the "gallows" part of the title is a clue.

The camera work and editing are sublime. When Ronet shoots his boss, we don't see it, as Malle cuts to a secretary using an electric pencil sharpener. I don't think there's a misstep along the way, as everything is clearly laid out. Unlike Godard, Malle did not really break any movie rules, he just enhanced them. And did Godard have Malle's two youths in mind when he made Breathless?

Another thing about Elevator to the Gallows is that it has one of the best scores I've heard. When I first heard the music I could tell that it was jazz, which was unusual for the time, and then up popped Miles Davis' name as the composer. He also plays trumpet of course, fitting the mood the film. Wonderful stuff.

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