Sunday, February 8, 2009

Elevator to the Gallows: Noir Meets Nouvelle Vague

By Steve Evans

Elevator to the Gallows, a beautifully photographed film noir, ushered the French New Wave onto the world stage, and in so doing influenced the future of cinema. That's all very grand, but historical importance should not obscure the critical view that the film plays up style over a story lacking in substance. Noir fans will be treading familiar turf. You’ll have a good time, anyway.

Louis Malle’s feature-film debut, a sharp-looking picture he wrote and directed at the precocious age of 24, gets the Criterion treatment in a comprehensive two-disc set. Crime-thriller aficionados definitely need this film, which is one of the best pictures Malle (Pretty Baby) would direct. Fatalists will want to add this set to their collections as well, if for no other reason than the film is an affirmation of their beliefs. A 1958 French noir infused with Clouzot’s style (see Les Diaboliques), Elevator to the Gallows also delivers a scorching jazz score by the great trumpeter Miles Davis. Those who appreciate beauty for its own sake will enjoy gazing upon Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim), whose smoldering glance could kick-start a dead man's heart. Significantly, this picture presages the stylistic sensibilities of the French New Wave, which would astonish the film-going world two years later with the arrival of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (À Bout de Souffle). As for supplemental material, Criterion once again delivers the goods.

A bit of plot
Florence Carala (Moreau) and her lover Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a former soldier, resolve to murder her wealthy husband in his office. Conveniently, Tavernier works for the man, and on a gray Saturday afternoon he scales the wall outside the office high rise, entering the husband's suite on the floor above through an unlocked window. Tavernier stages the murder to look like a suicide, curling the victim's index finger on the trigger of an automatic pistol. While Florence waits for their rendezvous and Tavernier walks to his convertible parked outside, he happens to notice an incriminating piece of evidence carelessly left behind. Rushing back into the building to retrieve this obvious clue, Tavernier instead becomes trapped in the elevator. Only the corpse of his murdered boss remains in the building, waiting to be discovered. Tick, tock.

Outside, two young lovers steal Tavernier's car for a joyride that leads to decadence and death: Louis (Georges Poujouly, who had played a schoolboy in Les Diaboliques three years earlier) and his flower-shop girlfriend Véronique (Yori Bertin) drive aimlessly in their stolen convertible and eventually become bored. Their wandering leads to a collision with a boorish German tourist and his wife.

Back at the crime scene, Tavernier uses his switchblade to dismantle part of the elevator mechanism and pry loose a steel panel, but he is still unable to escape. Incredibly, Tavernier seems as casually bored as the punks who’ve stolen his car. He smokes one cigarette after another, grinding the butts into the elevator floor.

Sensing something has gone wrong, Florence scours the streets of Paris, looking for her illicit lover. She fancies he has betrayed her and run off with another woman. A pervasive sense of doom hangs like a shroud over the couples as the clock ticks toward an inevitable confrontation.

Plot twists subtle and overt might hint at salvation, or at least escape, but as with all great films noir, the best-laid schemes lead inevitably to damnation.

Cinematic pulp fiction doesn't get much better — in any language. Visually, this is a fascinating film shot almost entirely in natural light by Malle's gifted cinematographer Henri Decaë (who would frame The 400 Blows for Truffaut the following year). His restless camera tracks all over Paris, shooting from wildly inventive angles. This, coupled with a breezy editing rhythm, was an early sign of the casually cool style that would become a hallmark of the New Wave.

And style is what this film is all about. Unlike the later films of Godard or Truffaut, who backed up their flashy camerawork with substantive scripts, rich in thematic concerns, Elevator to the Gallows is all surface glitter. It is a striking mood piece draped with rather obvious ideas. At its heart, the film could be seen as a character study of Florence, who roams the rain-slicked streets of Paris looking for her lover and conspirator in crime. Plagued by self-doubt and emotional insecurity, her internal monologues play out like existential non-sequiturs—each of her thoughts trails off into an ellipsis…her mind wandering like her body through the dark Parisian Rues. She takes the journey of a lost soul. Similarly, the car thieves wander through the night in their stolen vehicle before a chance encounter seals their fate. Lacking direction or purpose in life, these characters move on inertia until their haphazard choices force a destiny upon them – one that self-aware individuals would not have picked for themselves.

As social commentary—lower and middle classes railing against the corrupt, privileged elite (the first victim is an arms dealer) — Malle’s politics are familiar and unexceptional. The shaky thesis of his script cannot justify murder. It would have been better to jettison the social subtext and concentrate on full-bore noir. As a filmmaker, Malle never steers far from the familiar noir tropes, whether it's the femme fatale and the cool, cynical criminal seduced to do her bidding, or the delicious ironies that shatter their best laid plans. Malle was a devotee of American noir and obviously studied his inspirations. He also resorts to cheap foreshadowing techniques, such as a black cat crossing a killer’s path. Most viewers will quickly figure out where this narrative is headed. But let's not forget the man was only 24 and working with a tight budget, so perhaps these little shortcuts were essential tools for a beginner. No matter how we dissect the script, Malle delivers us to his destination in serious style.

Since the emphasis is on style, the real fascination of the picture is the dream logic of the images, as expressionistic as anything filmed in Germany during the 1920s, complemented by a brilliant jazz score. Miles Davis wailing on trumpet contributes as much to the mood of this motion picture as any mise-en-scene Malle was able to devise. The significance of their collaboration is inestimable. Jazz evolved through a thrilling period of creativity and change during the late 1950s, which saw the musical form moving in radical, improvisational directions. Malle recognized this and saw the potential for capturing mood and feeling in an electrifying new way through sound and image. Many scenes in the picture are assembled to follow the tempo of the music—a cutting-edge technique in 1958 that remains impressive today.

Thoughts on the Two-Disc Criterion Set
Less spectacular is the digital transfer to DVD, which appears flawed to these eyes. The image is soft and often disappoints with hazy sequences and twitchy chapter transitions. Whether this is a limitation of aged source materials compounded by an inadequate transfer I cannot determine with confidence. So let me be clear: This is a good set with decent video, but cinephiles have come to expect the finest quality products from Criterion (we should, given the suggested retail pricing of their titles) and this digital transfer is not up to the customary razor-sharp standards. Compare this with the eye-popping transfers Criterion delivered on such classics as The Third Man and M.

The mono audio track is clean and crisp, having benefited from re-mastering technology to reduce hiss, crackles, and pops. As with all Dolby 1.0 tracks, the sound will direct to the center channel on speaker systems 5.1 and higher. Criterion suggests two-channel playback through the front left and right speakers for a wider audio dispersal; this sounded best on my system.

Extras on Disc Two are plentiful and include a new interview with Moreau, and archival interviews with the director and principal cast. There’s mesmerizing footage of Miles Davis performing the score and rapping with Malle during the recording session, as well as a half-hour program analyzing the jazzman's beautiful and hugely influential compositions for the film (melding “bebop” and “cool jazz” styles with a bleak crime film was an inspired juxtaposition. Herbie Hancock would later bring a similar musical sensibility to his scores for Blow Up and Death Wish). Malle's student film, Crazeologie and an informative 26-page booklet of essays round out the extra features.

Although my French isn't as good as it was back in the day, I'm fairly sure that the original title, Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud, should translate literally as “Lift to the Scaffold.” Either way, it’s a clever title.

For cinema lovers intrigued by the vitality of the French New Wave, here is the shape of things to come — an early outpouring of unprecedented stylistic creativity, leading to a cinematic joie de vivre during the 1960s that remains unparalleled to this day.

Criterion slips with a disappointingly subpar video presentation, redeemed by high-quality extra features. Malle’s debut remains essential viewing.
Highly recommended for a lazy, rainy night with cold chardonnay, brie, and a crunchy baguette.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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