As beautifully fatalistic as its title, the classic thriller "Elevator to the Gallows" is a consummate entertainment rich with the romantic atmosphere of Paris in the 1950s. Coming at a turning point in French cinematic history, it drew upon several major talents -- director Louis Malle, star Jeanne Moreau, cinematographer Henri Decae, musician Miles Davis -- and achieved near-legendary results with all of them.
Made in 1957, when first-time director Malle was only 24 years old, "Elevator" ("Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud") has the brisk craftsmanship and efficiency of classic French cinema and a breathless hint of the energy of the New Wave that was but a few years away.
It made a major film star of Moreau, whose work remains completely bewitching. It called forth from Davis an improvised jazz score that, anchored by his piercing work on the trumpet, has become iconic in its own right. And in a pristine restoration by Rialto Pictures, the gold standard of reissue distributors, it showcases Decae's luminous, adventurous cinematography. It's not something you want to miss.
Adapted by Malle and Roger Nimier from a pulp novel by Noel Calef, "Elevator" has one of those twisty plots that, as typified by films like Clouzot's "Les Diabolique" and the Boileau-Narcejac novel that was the basis of Hitchcock's "Vertigo," was very much of a French taste.
It starts with what has the look of a perfect crime. Cool customer Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet, later the star of Malle's "The Fire Within"), a case-hardened former paratrooper, is planning a murder. The victim is to be his boss, who also happens to be the wealthy husband of his mistress Florence, played by Moreau.
Things do not, needless to say, go exactly as planned, and "Elevator" ends up following the separate destinies of Julien, Florence and a pair of delinquent teenage lovers (who prefigure the Jean-Paul Belmondo-Jean Seberg couple of 1959's "Breathless") who go for an impulsive joyride in Julien's convertible.
From "Elevator's" opening shot, a super-tight close-up of Moreau, the great skill of cinematographer Decae, who also shot the debut films of Truffaut and Chabrol, is very much in evidence. Decae was a master at working with available light, a technique considered daring at the time. It is especially effective in the film's signature sequence, shot with the camera in a baby carriage, of Moreau's Florence searching for Julien on the streets of Paris.
"She was lit only by the windows of the Champs-Elysees, that had never been done," the director recalled in "Malle on Malle." "That first week there was a rebellion of the technicians at the lab after they had seen the dailies. They went to the producer and said, 'You must not let Malle and Decae destroy Jeanne Moreau.' They were horrified."
Rather than destroy Moreau, who was already the top stage actress of her generation, "Elevator" was the platform for her further ascent. The desperate urgency and ethereal despair of Florence's quest for Julien, which one critic has likened to Eurydice in the Underworld, remains completely compelling and underscores the actress' unsurpassed ability to subtly convey complex emotions on screen.
Orchestrating all of this was, of course, Malle. He had previously worked as an assistant to two very different directors, Robert Bresson on "A Man Escaped" and Jacques Cousteau on "The Silent World," which led him to crack that he was uncertain about working with actors because "I'd been filming fish for four years."
Uncertain or not, Malle did such powerful work here he won the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc for best French film of the year and went on to direct such diverse efforts as "Murmur of the Heart," "Atlantic City" and "Au Revoir Les Enfants."
"Elevator to the Gallows," this welcome restoration emphasizes, can hold its own with any of them.
'Elevator to the Gallows'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Rialto Pictures release. Director Louis Malle. Producer Jean Thuillier. Screenplay Louis Malle, Roger Nimier, based on the novel by Noel Calef. Cinematography Henri Decae. Editor Leonide Azar. Music Miles Davis. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
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