Even in the very first shots of Elevator To The Gallows (1959), viewers are aware that they are in the hands of a master with director Louis Malle: Two lovers are talking on the phone, the scene switches back and forth from the woman to the man and then back to the woman. The incandescent Jeanne Moreau is one of the great beauties of French cinema, but here she’s not lit like a matinee queen or a sex star.
The utilitarian lighting in Elevator’s cold opening is a crucial element throughout the picture – it brings a realism to this thriller that keeps the tension taut, and the flat, unglamorous look prefigures the raw, improvised imagery of the French New Wave of the 1960s. When the camera pulls back from the couple’s conversation, it’s revealed that the woman is behind a glass door in a telephone booth, and the man is being shot through the glass of an office window. The resulting sense of voyeuristic unease is the same thing audiences sensed 25 years later watching Brian DePalma’s Body Double (1989).
New Wave auteur Jean Luc Godard has quipped, “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl,” and Elevator has both. Moreau plays Florence. Florence loves Julien (Maurice Ronet), but she’s married to Simon (Jean Wall). The lovers plot to kill Simon, but a grappling hook, a pair of young romantic criminals, and one faulty elevator later, and Malle ushers his viewers into a rigorously shot noir pulsing with Hitchcockian suspense. The young criminals who become tangled in Julien and Florence’s plan are named Louis and Veronique, and fans of Godard will recognize the pair as a precursor to the lawless lovers in Breathless.
Malle is probably best known for the naturalism that marked his mature works, but the bare bones lighting in Elevator likely reflects on Malle’s earlier successes as a documentary film maker – The Silent World, which Malle co-directed with Jacques Cousteau, won both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar in 1965. Of course, Malle’s voyeuristic shots, and furtive camera pans, are much more self-aware here than in the bare bones cinema he gave viewers with 1981’s My Dinner With Andre. Elevator’s plot just sort of marches forward in a logical sequence, but Malle’s smart enough to realize that simply letting the lens linger on Moreau doing nearly nothing is sometimes all the cinema any viewer might require between twists and discoveries.
Elevator has been restored and rereleased not so much because it’s one of Malle’s best films – although it’s thoroughly entertaining – but because of its historic importance as a herald of the New Wave. But another important element in the film – and in its preservation, restoration and its continued screening – is the Miles Davis soundtrack that invests nearly every frame of this film in the chilliest of cool blue tones. Music is highlighted in Godard’s cinema – Made in USA features a young Marianne Faithful singing “As Tears Go By” and the director’s One Plus One, which documented the Rolling Stones recording of “Sympathy for the Devil," is one of the most important rock docs of all time. Malle’s marrying of music and images feels especially inspired – and perhaps inspiring to Godard and his comrades – when he lets Davis’ horn simply serenade Moreau’s alternately haunted, halted and horrified visage. Davis’ ensemble was playing a gig in Paris when Malle approached them about the film. They improvised the score while watching the movie projected on a screen during one all-night session. It’s a one of a kind recording that points at the masterpiece Kind of Blue, which was recorded months after Davis’ work with Malle.
Before Elevator, Moreau starred in a celebrated stage production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” that had The New York Times declaring her one of France’s greatest young actors. But, again, Malle’s masterstroke is how mysterious and alluring he makes Moreau specifically by not shooting her like a star. In one of the film’s most iconic scenes, Florence thinks she’s been betrayed by Julien and she walks along the Champs Elysees alone at night with only the light of the shop windows illuminating the scene. See your way to the Belcourt for this one, and don’t forget to take a ride on their brand new elevator.
Elevator To The Gallows screens as part of the Belcourt Theatre’s Weekend Classics on Saturday, Oct. 15 and Sunday, Oct. 16. See www.belcourt.org for times and tickets.