Monday, 25 November 2013

Elevator to the Gallows Has a Mostly Smooth Ascent

The film:
Elevator to the Gallows aka "Ascenseur pour l'échafaud" (1958)

The under-the-radar-factor:
Certainly not an unknown work in the grand scheme of things but with three significant breakthroughs (Louis Malle's debut feature, Jeanne Moreau's "a star is born" moment, and the legendary Miles Davis composing a movie score), it can be argued its significance in the history of cinema has been underestimated (and even if it hasn't, I've been dying to look at this film).

The review:

It was a few years back that my wife and I found ourselves in Montreal at Musée des beau-arts and an exhibition it was running called "We Want Miles" where I first learned how Louis Malle's noirish debut feature came together. The young filmmaker felt his project was lacking something atmospherically and a suggestion was made that he meet Davis to discuss doing the soundtrack. The rest, as they say, is history, as Miles and his fellow musicians (mostly French) improvised the score in one session.  Before we go further into the film itself, why don't we take five (actually, two minutes and thirty eight seconds) to see and hear how Master Miles went through the process.

Florence (Jeanne Moreau) is willing to go along with the plan her brave but not necessarily bright ex-paratrooper lover Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) has for murdering his boss and her husband, the corrupt Simon Carala (Jean Wall). The deed is carried out and made to look like a suicide (yes, we've been down that cinematic road before) but Julien forgets a piece of incriminating evidence that has been left behind at the scene of the crime. Returning to the same office building, he rides up on the elevator just as the power to the building is turned off for the rest of the weekend, trapping him between floors. This sets off a series of developments outside, as a young flower shop attendant Veronique (Yori Bertin) and her legend-in-his-own-mind boyfriend Louis (Georges Poujoly) note Julien's car unoccupied and decide to take it for a joy ride. Out on the road they discover some of the vehicle's contents, including a small spy-type camera and the gun that was used to commit the murder. Meanwhile, Florence has been hanging out waiting for her lover to arrive and catches a glimpse of his car driving by, with the young girl in the passenger seat. Thinking the worst, the dazed Florence begins a zombie-like journey, traversing her way to various cafes and bars to inquire if Julien has been seen.

Elevator to the Gallows
In the meantime out in the countryside, Veronique and Louis have run into a rather eccentric and loud couple from Germany. The tourists convince the youngsters to stay at the same motel and socialize but Louis insists on being known as Julien Tavernier for registration purposes. After some partying, things go very wrong when the French couple try to steal the tourist's car for the next part of their journey. An act of violence ensues and the trail that is left behind leaves the impression to the motel management and the police that the real Julien Tavernier must have committed the crime.

The rest of the film deals with a serendipitous moment involving the elevator back at the office, pathetic suicide attempts, Florence under suspicion of being a prostitute for wandering the city so late at night, and, of course, more of the beautiful Miles Davis soundtrack.

Let's take five again - this is how the film was originally promoted upon it's release in France.

And this contemporary promo - it allows one to soak up more of the film's atmospherics...and that beautiful music...

There's no doubt some eyes will roll at the blunder committed early in the story by Julien - how could he have been dumb enough to leave the rope at the side of the building leading up to Simon's office, even if he was in a panic? The simple answer is that if he doesn't commit the error, you don't have a movie. But Elevator to the Gallows is about a group of people who fool themselves into believing they have more control of their world than they possibly can have by leading the lives they choose. In one corner you have Florence and Julien, with their painstaking details. On the other side, Veronique and Louis naively believe they can initiate, recover, hide, detour and just plain luck out in all the actions they take as they live life on the fly. Both sides are wrong - people are shown to fool themselves too easily, regardless of approach. (Lino Ventura provides a needed breath of fresh air in his role of a cop who's the only character in the film not seeing the world...or himself...through rose colored glasses.) And this isn't the same kind of noir landscape covered in so many previous American films. One remembers the time and place this movie had in regards to cinema in general and to the burgeoning French New Wave in particular, even if Malle was never one of the real Cahiers boys. Anything can happen and does in Elevator to the Gallows - all cinematic bets are off.

The black and white cinematography of Henri Decae is wonderful and there is no doubt that his camera adores Moreau's incredible face. She is a marvel to watch as she conducts her search (actually, these two lovers never do connect in the film, their telephone call right at the beginning being as close as they get) and Paris seems to be made for her as a backdrop - she doesn't wander through it as much as the city revolves around her. Of all the characters, hers is the one that is consumed by love and unselfishness. You smirk and shake your heads at the others - you feel with the character of Florence.

Even with some brain cramp moments - by some of the characters and some of the scenario provided - this film takes you into a noir feast of dandy men, loyal women, a Paris that everyone wants to imagine and a lesson of how people never do learn but never stop trying anyway. The film should probably be appreciated in the same way the characters in the film behave - don't think too much. Just live it.

Elevator to the t'aime!

(My biggest peeve with the flowing, hypnotic Miles Davis soundtrack? - not enough of it.)

I say this film tastes - DÉLICIEUX.

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