Although film noir is a genre that traditionally refers to certain crime films made by Hollywood during the 1940s and ‘50s, the French, who originally coined the term and defended its artistic merits, made several examples of their own, following the German occupation. The French New Wave, in particular—that loose collective of critics-turned-filmmakers who so radically changed cinema in the ‘60s—constantly referenced the beloved American genre. Nevertheless, they tackled it from a decidedly post-modern perspective, playing with the genre’s forms and archetypes without retaining the melodrama. Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows”, however, is a French film noir that aims to “play it straight.”
Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), an ex-Foreign Legion officer, works for Simon Carala (Jean Wall), a shrewd businessman whose office literally dominates the Parisian skyline. Together with Carala’s wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau), he plans to murder the mogul, masking it as a suicide. At first, it all works out admirably: Julien shoots Carala in the head with the latter’s own (stolen) gun, cleverly locks the office door from the inside, and exits like nothing ever happened.
Julien is about to drive away to meet Florence at a local café before noticing the rope he used to climb up to Carala’s office is dangling from the building. Leaving his car engine on, he rushes back inside to remove the incriminating evidence. As he makes his way up on the elevator undetected, the office caretaker shuts down the power to the building, leaving Julien trapped between two floors, unable to get out.
Back on the streets a young flower girl and her quick-tempered boyfriend (who conspicuously wears the leather motorcycle jacket made famous by Brando in “The Wild One”) steal Julien’s car and head off on a joyride. They drive by Florence, who, recognizing the car and the girl, assumes, albeit with some strong reservations, that Julien must not have had the guts to go through with the plan and left with another instead.
From then on, the viewer is led through a series of unexpected twists and turns on highways, motels and backstreets throughout the City of Lights and its surroundings. At a tense 92 minutes, “Elevator to the Gallows” is expertly paced and never boring, with multiple storylines forming a cohesive narrative of mistaken identities and unrestrained passion.
Technically, the film compliments the script’s unpredictability and economy. Miles Davis recorded a beautiful and melancholic score specially for the occasion, while Henri Decaë (perhaps France’s most famous cinematographer of the time) films a hyper-modern Paris, focusing on contemporary architecture as opposed to well-known landmarks. The Sacré Cœur, the famous church that sits upon the hill of Montmartre, is visible only for an instant, far in the distance through Carala’s wide office windows. Old Paris still exists somewhere, but it’s not the focus.
There is, in fact, more than a hint of uneasiness about the encroachment of modernity upon Parisian life. The wild, almost anarchist attitudes of the younger couple are reminiscent of Godard’s hedonistic heroes in “Breathless.” But whereas the latter’s antics are portrayed flippantly, Louis Malle and co-writer Roger Nimier present a much darker depiction of disaffected youth. (Incidentally, it’s a vision of the rock’n roll generation present in the “last” film noir, “Touch of Evil,” released the same year). Such pessimism surrounds other parts of society as well: from the intrusiveness of technology to an unreliable mass media and an amoral corporate world.
Despite the absence of femmes fatales or private eyes, “Elevator to the Gallows” captures the essence of film noir — that nagging feeling that underneath the apparent comfort and security of the modern world, some things are amiss. Such a point-of-view can sometime run the risk of sinking into adolescent cynicism, but it also speaks to a legitimate yearning to question unfettered human progress. “Elevator to the Gallows” achieves all of that and more; it’s also very entertaining.