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"Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud)" is a master work,
so it's startling to learn that it was Louis Malle's first feature.
It's a mother lode textbook of how-to for noir genre filmmakers as he
creates his own style from what he's learned from other masters.
Malle pays tribute to the tense murder style of Hitchcock with Billy Wilder's cynicism of selfishness a la "Double Indemnity" plus Graham Greene-like, post-war politics from "The Third Man"-- and arms and oil dealers with military pasts in the Middle East are not outdated let alone adulterous lovers and rebellious teenagers.
The film drips with sex and violence without actually showing either -- sensuous Jeanne Moreau walking through a long, rainy Paris night is enough to incite both.
The black and white cinematography by Henri Decaë is breathtakingly beautiful in this newly struck 35 mm print, from smokey cafés with ever watchful eyes like ours to the titular, ironic alibi's long shafts (which surely must have inspired a key, far paler scene in "Speed") to highway lights, to a spare interrogation box, but particularly in the street scenes. The coincidences and clues are built up, step by step, visually, including the final damning evidence.
Miles Davis's improvisations gloriously and agitatedly burst forth as if pouring from the cafés and radios, but the bulk of the film is startlingly silent, except for ambient sounds like rain that adds to the tension in the plot.
The characters are archetypes -- the steely ex-Legonnaire, the James Dean and Natalie Wood imitators, the preening prosecutor -- that fit together in a marvelous puzzle. But all are cool besides Moreau's fire, as she dominates the look of the film, just wandering around Paris.
There is some dialog that doesn't quite make sense at the end, but, heck, neither does "The Big Sleep" and this is at least in that league, if not higher in the pantheon.
This film is a master piece. Miles Davis's music is superb. It is an
object lesson on the art of combining sound and vision. The tension and
the brooding Parisian atmosphere are heightened with cool and poignant
playing. It is surprising (to the best of my knowledge) that this is
the only complete original film score he produced.
The story of the crime is clever. It has reasonable human motivation and plot, and is steadily revealed. But, it is the study of 'being in the wrong place at the wrong time' that makes this film a classic. The series of chance events that will dramatically effect the characters' lives, give this film a similar feel to 'Run Lola Run' or 'Irreversible', dispute this film's linear structure and age. The dark cinematography is excellent.
I have only had an opportunity to see it once (I only just caught it because BBC4 listed it under its English title), but I would like to see it again.
The soundtrack is widely available, but I can not find the film on DVD or PAL VHS. This film should be available to a wider audience, for me, preferably in French with English subtitles.
P.S. This wonderful film is now available on DVD as part of the Louis Malle Collection: Volume 1. (Updated 11/10/2006.)
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (AKA: Elevator to the Gallows/Lift to the
Scaffold) is directed by Louis Malle and co-written by Malle, Roger
Nimier and Noël Calef (novel). It stars Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet,
Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin and Jean Wall. Music is by Miles Davis
and cinematography by Henri Decaë.
A little ole devil this one, a sly slow pacer that itches away at your skin. Rightly seen as a bridging movie between the classic film noir cycle and the nouvelle vague, Malle's movie is in truth straightforward on narrative terms. Julien Tavernier (Ronet) is going to kill husband of his lover, Florence Carala (Moreau), who also happens to be his boss, but upon executing the perfect murder, he, through his own absent mindedness, winds up stuck in a lift close to the crime scene. Outside Florence is frantically awaiting his arrival so as to begin their life together in earnest, but when a couple of young lovers steal Julien's car, Florence gets the wrong end of the stick and a sequence of events lead to Julien and Florence hitching that ride to the gallows.
Simplicity of narrative be damned, Malle's movie is a classic case of that mattering not one jot. There is style to burn here, with bleak atmospherics dripping from every frame, and Miles Davis' sultry jazz music hovers over proceedings like a sleazy grim reaper. The ironic twists in the writing come straight off the bus to noirville, putting stings in the tale, the smart reverse of the norm finding Moreau (sensual) wandering the streets looking for her male lover, while elsewhere he's in isolation and a doppleganger murder scenario is cunningly being played out. Decaë's photography has a moody desperation about it that so fits the story, the use of natural light making fellow French film makers sit up and take notice. While the dialogue, and the caustic aside to arms dealings, ensures we know that Malle can be a sly old fox. He really should have done more noir like pictures.
A film that convinces us that Julien and Florence are deeply in love and passionate about each other, and yet they never are once together in the whole movie! It's just one of the many wonderful things about Louis Malle's excellent picture.
Remember folks, the camera never lies... 9/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The atmosphere of 1950's Paris, a truly beautiful actress, a well-balanced plot and the ultimate Jazz soundtrack, recorded in one go by Miles Davis.
The 1958 Louis Malle masterpiece, more than 40 years later, is still one of the best police films ever, Hollywood included. If only more films could seek inspiration from it!
Every moment, from the time the nearly perfect crime is committed to the end, oozes with elegant Parisian sophistication and beauty, and artful camera work. The silences, punctuated with Davis' magnificent trumpet playing, gives the audience time to breathe without reaching boredom. The overall relatively slow pace is actually enthralling. Tension rises as the main protagonists gradually travel to their scaffold. As they finally are arrested and led to their cruel fate, one cannot but feel pity and even sympathy for the killer couple, for such is the sense of involvement that Malle manages to pass on to the audience.
The absence of the now necessary action scenes is also wonderfully refreshing, and the plot is thorough and intelligent.
"Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud" is masterpiece and reference in "Film Noir" type films. It is, along with "Aurevoir les Enfants" undoubtedly a Louis Malle "Chef d'Oeuvre".
Elevator to the Gallows is a great film and even better, has a short running time! The acting is great in every instance, the plot is original, and the direction is probably among the best I've ever seen. I loved how the plot had a lot of twists but there weren't so many that you were confused as to what was going on. Although I won't reveal the ending, I thought it was great and made me smile. However, you have to like this type of movie to see it, as it is kind of complicated and there isn't a ton of action. This film shows how the perfect murder can be only planned so well; you can never plan what could happen. If you don't get bored too easily, stick with this gem and I'm sure you'll love it.
Louis Malle was all of 25 when he made his directorial debut with this
1958 noirish thriller that also serves as a morality play. Using the
elevator of the title as a vehicle for his leitmotif, he does an
admirable job of capturing the smoky gray atmosphere of Paris in the
1950's and using it to great cinematic effect on a chain-link story of
deception and murder. In fact, the whole movie plays like a Francophile
version of a James M. Cain novel times two with plot twists coming in
quick and sometimes contrived succession. To its credit, the brief
92-minute running time trots by quickly given the multiple story lines.
The labyrinth story focuses first on illicit lovers Florence Carala, the restless wife of a corrupt arms dealer, and Julien Tavernier, a former war hero working for Florence's husband. There is not a wasted moment as they plot her husband's murder, but of course, things go awry with a forgotten piece of evidence and a running car ready to be taken. An amoral young couple, sullen and resentful Louis and free-spirited Veronique, enter the scene tangentially and get caught up in their own deceptions with a boisterous German couple whom they meet through a fender bender. The plot strands meander somewhat and eventually come together in a climax that has all the characters confronting the harsh reality of their past actions. There is a particular poignancy in the photos Florence sees at the end since we have no indication of the depth of emotion between the lovers otherwise.
Malle, along with co-screenwriter Roger Nimier, presents an interesting puzzle full of irony and chance events, but there is a periodic slackness to the suspense, for instance, Florence's endlessly despondent walk though nocturnal Paris. Jazz great Miles Davis contributes a fitting hipster score, though the music is not as big an element as I expected in setting the mood. With her sorrowful eyes and pouting intelligence, Jeanne Moreau makes a vivid impression as Florence and gives her obsessed character the necessary gravitas to make her journey worthy of our interest. Maurice Ronet effectively plays Julien like a coiled spring throughout, and it's intriguing to note how most of his performance takes place in an immobilized elevator. As Louis and Veronique, Georges Poujuloy and the especially pixyish Yori Bertin are the forerunners for the runaway pair in Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" replete with youthful angst and mercenary cool.
The print transfer on the 2006 Criterion Collection DVD package is wonderfully pristine. The first disc also contains the original and 2005 re-release trailers, though there is surprisingly no scholarly audio commentary track (the usual bonus for a Criterion release). The second disc, however, makes up for it with a bevy of extras starting with an extensive 1975 early career retrospective interview with Malle, a 2005 interview with an aged but still haunting Moreau, and a joint interview with the two icons and one-time lovers at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival.
Three shorts on the second disc focus on Davis's contribution - the six-minute "The Record Session" shot the night Davis and his musicians recorded the score; a remembrance piece with pianist Rene Utreger, the only surviving member of Davis's ensemble; and the celebratory "Miles Goes Modal: The Breakthrough Score to Elevator to the Gallows" where jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis and music critic Gary Giddins discuss Davis's influence over the generation of musicians to come. There is also a short by Malle set to Charlie Parker's "Crazeology" and an informative 25-page photo essay booklet.
I've only seen a couple of other of Louis Malle's films, but I'm sure
I'll want to see more after getting to see this in its revival in
theaters. It's an ironic, tense, a little aloof and engrossing thriller
that plays on a couple of expectations if not all. At times I almost
felt like I was watching a darker, dramatic French-noir version of Curb
Your Enthusiasm; you're cringing in your seat at times because
everything, at least for the first hour, seems realistic, and the
inter-cutting between the three plot-lines (Julien in the elevator,
Florence on the streets, the lovers-on-the-run at the Motel). You know
something bad will happen, as par for the style Malle is working in
(it's his first film, one can/can't tell if they didn't know
beforehand). But it interested me, and kept me in my seat, how I knew
things may unravel as they should in these films, and I found myself
having to root for someone in a sea of anti-heroes.
I mention Curb Your Enthusiasm as there is a sort of everyday occurrence that basically kicks off the plot (in tune with the genius title of the film), as Julien Tavaneur gets stuck in an elevator after getting rid of Florence Carala's rich husband (Moreau's character). Two kids, one more dangerous (if a little inexplicable, Louis) than the other, steal his car and stay at a Motel, where they meet a genial German tourist. Out of bad luck (as it is a running theme of the play), he kills the German, and things get more out of hand for everybody. In fact, the plot is rather thin, leaving room for a) suspense tenseness in the elevator scenes (and later in the interrogation scene, superbly lit), b) narrative musings by the calm Moreau, or c) troubles of the kids. These narratives are handled well, along with the typical police procedural, and it leads up to an ending that may not necessarily have a message to it.
It can't be as pat as 'crime doesn't pay'. Moreau, in a classy close-up, says things that struck a chord with me, as did many parts of the film. It may be fate, as par for the naturalism, but is there something behind the cool veneer? The only downside for me was with the performance of the actor who played Louis. I didn't think he gave enough to what is indeed a rather small-minded character. The actress who plays his girlfriend fares fine, but he is one of the keys to the film, and I felt a little uneasy watching some of his scenes later on in the film. But still, any fault(s) I had with the film were minuscule when looking at how it is overall. This is one of those films that for pretty much the whole way through had me in its grip; I've rarely felt that watching a 'film-noir' before, but I did feel a very small kinship to another love/lust/cold-murder film, Blood Simple, which leaped off of some of the conventions we all know and admire in these films.
And the contribution from Miles Davis, who is to 'cool' as the Beatles are to love & peace, can't be over-estimated. If Moreau gives the film a kind of downtrodden, wandering and wondering soul, and Malle gives the right look of the film with the great Henri (Le Samourai) Decae as DP, Davis backs up everything else. Sometimes his fast, overwhelming notes come through (mostly as on-the-set background music), and his slower music is landmark stuff, but what's surprising is that he can also add suspense, like to the elevator and interrogation scenes, and the mood is inescapable. I wouldn't be surprised if more than a few filmmakers who saw this film were inspired by Malle's use of free-flow jazz to add to the 'cool-ness' of the picture (not that he was the first of course, but it can be spotted in many films, in particular Herrmann's score for Taxi Driver). I have a feeling this may be the kind of film that will play better on multiple viewings, and for now I'm content to say it was a very well-spent trip.
The former Captain Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) works in the
company of the powerful arms dealer Simon Carala (Jean Wall) and is the
lover of his wife Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau). Julien and Florence
plot a scheme to kill Simon simulating a suicide. Julien stays
after-hours in the company with the telephone operator and the doorman
and comes to his office. He climbs to Simon's office using a rope
outside the window and kills the executive. He runs to his office to
attend a phone call and forgets the rope, and leaves the building with
the two employees to have an alibi. When he is ready to drive his car,
he sees the rope hanging outside the building and he returns to
withdraw the rope, leaving his overcoat and revolver in the car. When
he enters in the lift, the doorman shutdown the building and Julien is
trapped inside the elevator.
Meanwhile the smalltime thief Louis (Georges Poujouly) steals Julien's car and drives to a motel with his girlfriend Véronique (Yori Bertin) and lodge using the name of Julien. They drink with the German tourists Horst Bencker (Iván Petrovich) and his wife Frieda Bencker (Elga Andersen) and early in the morning, Louis tries to steal his Mercedes Benz. When he is surprised by Horst, Louis shots and kills the couple. Julien Tavernier becomes the prime suspect of the murder and when he leaves the lift, he does not have alibi for the murder of Simon Carala and the German tourists.
"Ascenseur pour l'Échafaud" is the first feature of Louis Malle, who is also one of the writers. The unpredictable and original story is fantastic, the screenplay has many plot points until the very last scene and the performances are top-notch.
Julien Tavernier is a methodic military with cold blood that gets caught between the rock and a hard place due to a mistake and lots of bad luck. The soundtrack with the music of Miles Davis gives a touch of class to this little masterpiece. The result is one of the best thrillers entwined with comedy of errors that I have ever seen. My vote is nine.
Title (Brazil): "Ascensor Para o Cadafalso" ("Elevator to the Gallows")
Greetings again from the darkness. The phrase Film Noir conjures up a
certain feel and look and "Gallows" certainly captures what we have
come to expect from the genre. However, the great director Louis Malle
goes even further with his minimalistic approach to sound, lighting and
dialog. Where 1944's "Double Indemnity" wreaks explosive on screen
passion, Malle offers up a quiet simmering that draws the viewer into
the lives of the main characters.
Jeanne Moreau is the perfect pouty French femme fatale. Her scenes of walking (wandering) the dark, rainy streets of Paris are chilling to watch for film lovers. The weak lighting and lack of make-up allow Moreau's true emotions to guide us. Malle also is tremendous in his filming of the elevator scenes with Maurice Ronet.
The secondary characters of the young lovers played by Yori Bertin (Veronique) and George Poujouly (Louis) are unmistakable in their likeness to Natalie Wood and James Dean. Watching two young kids carelessly destroy their own lives, as well as that of others, is quite the contrast to the well-conceived scheme of Moreau and Ronet.
I have not been able to come up with an apt description of the powerfully improvised jazz score from the legendary Miles Davis. The approach has been mimicked over the years, but never duplicated. It is startling in its ability to slap the viewer in the face! Moreau is of course a screen legend and went on to star in "Jules and Jim", Truffaut's "The Four Hundred Blows" and my personal favorite, "The Bride Wore Black". As great as she was in all of these, I am not sure her essence was ever better captured than her wandering through the Paris streets in "Elevator to the Gallows".
I have seen several movies where a movie was very interesting at the time it was filmed, but is barely watchable today if not funny because of technological obsoleteness. This is not one of them. The plot is very interesting and is not at all predictable, making me wonder why it was not copied by later movies. This movie made me proud of myself for going to that art cinema without knowing anything about it, and watching it with a few other poor souls who had nothing else to do on a Friday afternoon. Definitely the best b/w movie and the best French movie I have seen, and one of the best films I have seen in the past 5 years.
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