Eating my vegetables #2: Elevator to the Gallows

Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows is a twisty thriller driven by one unfortunate coincidence after another. Maurice Ronet is Julien, an ex legionairre working for an arms dealer and Jeanne Moreau (in her first role) is Florence, his boss with whom Julien has been having an affair. The two agree to murder Florence’s husband, cover it up, and run away together and all goes well until Julien leaves behind one of his muderous tools and must go back to the office where he is then trapped in the elevator for the night.

This mistake results in the second story concerning a free-wheeling young couple, including a juvenile delinquent appearing like a young French version of Marlon Brando, stealing Julien’s car and beginning heir own ill-fated adventure. The final result creates a rare paradox for such a perfect crime: mistaken identify that results in you being on the hook for an even larger crime that you didn’t even commit!

Really groovy score by Miles Davis is a real highlight of this film, especially the cooled-out jazz that underscored Jeanne Moreau’s character’s despondent walk through the streets of Paris in a thunder storm, desperately searching for her missing lover. And the lighting of many scenes was quite striking, with Moreau lit by the streetlights and neon signs of the bars and the later scene wherein the police question Julien in a room lit only from directly above the table with no indication of exactly where they are – similar to many scenes from stage plays that I have seen where such lighting and lack of scenery or staging indicates a very claustrophobic setting.

I noted that the scenes of Julien’s attempts to escape from the stopped elevator have much a similar feel as that felt in A Man Escaped, Robert Bresson’s high tension prison break film of the previous year, and, dare I say it, perhaps served as an influence in the creation of the excellent elevator scene in Die Hard. Call me crazy but that’s what immediately sprang to mind.

A strange aspect of this film is that the two co-conspirator/lover characters are never shown on screen together and never meet during the film, causing their affair to come off less as a legitimate plot point than as a mere maguffin.

Something else that really stuck out to me was the absolute cold-blooded-ness of the murders in the film. The killers, both clearly amateurs who, one would guess, are haven’t killed before, don’t seem to even get any sort of adrenaline rush from what they’ve done and are able to sort of just brush off the act itself once it is committed. It’s like murder is no more taxing on one’s conscience than skipping out on the bill at a restaurant. I’m not sure if this is just my more modern sensibilities or an intentional choice by Malle in his direction, but it did strike me as a bit strange. Nonetheless, this was a tight and enjoyable film and will remain in my library.

Next up: Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Bringing up Baby.

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