“I’m the one who can’t take any more.”
Louis Malle’s 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) opens with an extreme close-up of Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) uttering these desperate words. “I love you,” she continues. “So we have to. I love you. I won’t leave you, Julien. You know I’ll be there. With you.” As she speaks, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal, first, that she’s on the telephone and, secondly, that she’s wearing a wedding ring. It soon emerges that the man she’s speaking to is not her husband, Simon (Jean Wall), but her husband’s employee, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), and they’ve decided to kill Simon so that they can be together. “Then we’ll be free, Julien,” she says.
Their plan is simple: Julien will go into Simon’s office, shoot him and make it look like a suicide. It’s Saturday evening, so the building is virtually empty, and because Simon is about to leave for a trip to Geneva, no one is apt to look for him for a few days. Everything goes smoothly until, after committing the murder, walking outside and starting his car, Julien notices that the rope he used to climb from his window to Simon’s floor is still hanging there. “What an idiot!” he mutters. He runs back inside and gets in the elevator. It goes up, up — and then stops, and the lights go dark. The security guard, who assumed that everyone was out of the building, turned off the power, and now Julien is trapped.
Meanwhile, Véronique (Yori Bertin), a young salesgirl in a flower shop, and her boyfriend, Louis (Georges Poujouly), have their eyes on Julien’s convertible, which he left running in his haste to remove the incriminating evidence. The romantic, excitable Véronique is enamored with Julien and his lifestyle. “It’s old hat,” says the blasé Louis, but once Julien is gone, he decides to take the car for a ride. Although Véronique protests at first, she gets into the passenger seat. As they drive down the street, they pass the waiting Florence, who can’t see the driver but does notice the girl; Julien, she thinks, has betrayed her. Then, to further complicate matters, Véronique and Louis stop at a motel. “I’ll sign in as Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier,” she tells him, having already introduced him as “my husband, Julien Tavernier” to a German couple whose car they rear-ended. The real Julien will soon be in even more trouble than he suspects.
Louis Malle was only twenty-four years old when he began working on Elevator to the Gallows in 1957. He had already co-directed Jacques Cousteau’s 1956 documentary The Silent World and served as an assistant to Robert Bresson, but this was the first feature he directed on his own. It was based on a novel of the same title by Noël Calef, and Malle adapted it for the screen with writer Roger Nimier. In an interview with Philip French, published in the book Malle on Malle in 1993, the director discussed Nimier and the screenwriting process:
When he read Ascenseur he said, ‘This book is stupid.’ ‘Yes, but the plot is good.’ He said, ‘All right, but let’s start from scratch.’ From the beginning, we literally invented what people remember of the film today — the character of Jeanne Moreau. It hardly existed in the book. When you think of it, she’s not really necessary to the plot; she just floats around trying to find her lover in Paris. But we made her part of the plot at the end.
The plot’s appeal is obvious, particularly as the movie goes on and the various characters’ lives become increasingly entangled. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the elevator isn’t the only trap Julien and the others encounter; it’s just the most physical one. Watching the story play out and trying to guess what will happen next is a pleasure, and it keeps twisting and turning until the very end.
Malle wanted his film to be more than a great thriller, however. “We kept the plot of the novel, but we tried to make this crime novel into something else,” he said on a 1975 episode of the Canadian television program Parlons cinéma. Later in the interview, he added, “You have to remember the context. Elevator and The Lovers [his next film] take place in a specific political context — the death throes of the Fourth Republic. France was just coming out of the war in Indochina, which had been very traumatic, and was entering the Algerian War, which led to the collapse of the republic and paved the way for De Gaulle’s rise to power.” Julien is, notably, a former paratrooper. “He fought in Indochina. Then he was in North Africa, in the Legion. Now he’s in business,” an admiring Véronique explains to Louis. (Julien describes himself as “a retired hero” at one point.) Simon Carala, meanwhile, is involved in arms dealing. “Don’t sneer at war,” Julien tells him. “It’s your bread and butter. Indochina netted you how much? And now Algeria. Have some respect for war. It’s your family heirloom.”
Louis, too, comments on these issues. When offered champagne, he replies, “It does nothing for me. My generation has other things on its mind. Four years of occupation, Indochina, Algeria.” Coming from him, though, it seems a bit false, a bit pat. While he may consider himself politically conscious, he appears far more concerned with material things, especially cars. (He also mentions stealing a scooter, and he’s first seen admiring himself in his leather jacket.) “What I thought was most interesting, and still do, is the young, completely oblivious couple, eager to join in the general consumer frenzy,” Malle said on Parlons cinéma. “The young guy belongs completely to the next generation. He’s ahead of his time. I remember people back then thought he was psychologically unrealistic.” Véronique, though less inclined to theft, is just as impressed with wealth and all of its trappings. “That’s the kind of life I want,” she declares as she watches Julien open the roof of his convertible with “a push of the button!” To her, his affluent, somewhat mysterious lifestyle is wildly romantic. When she and Louis find suspicious items in his car, Louis says that Julien is “shady,” to which she replies, “Maybe he’s a secret agent. Look at the way he dresses.”
Florence has little in common with the flighty young florist, yet there’s a romanticism about her as well, much more desperate than Véronique’s. The details of her marriage are largely left to the audience’s imagination, though the fact that Simon is rich and quite a bit older than she is provides plenty of fuel for speculation. Did she marry him solely for his money? Did she love him at first and then cease to do so for some reason? Is he cruel, indifferent, affectionate? Does he suspect that she’s involved with Julien? Is he unfaithful to her as well? Whatever the case, she’s pinned all of her hopes on the murder plot and her future with Julien, so when she sees his car go by with Véronique in the passenger seat, her world collapses.
Some of the film’s most iconic scenes involve Florence roaming the streets of Paris at night, searching for Julien and oblivious to everything else, including rain and several cars that nearly hit her. Occasionally, her interior monologue is heard; at first, she simply thinks through the situation, but as the movie goes on, she starts to address her absent lover, always in a very dramatic fashion. Jeanne Moreau, interviewed in 2005 for the Criterion Collection’s release of the film, said that Florence’s inner voice “at some times is so powerful, what goes through her mind and her heart, that while she walks in the streets she looks like a madwoman, even speaking to herself.” It’s clear that she’s on the verge of a breakdown, but she’s also able to pull herself together when dealing with people, and can be quite commanding when she has to be; no doubt that’s second nature to her as the wife of a wealthy, prominent businessman, who seems to be well-known to everyone in the city. Still, even in these situations, her thoughts never stray from her own problems. On Parlons cinéma in 1975, Malle described both Florence and Julien as “outsiders breaking their ties with their work — that is, their social setting, their profession, the people around them. They’re essentially loners.”
Florence’s nocturnal ramblings are also memorable for their music, by jazz great Miles Davis. Davis scored the entire movie, but his work is especially prominent in those scenes due to the lack of dialogue. Other dialogue-free sequences are eerily silent, save for a few diegetic sounds. Henri Decaë’s gorgeous black and white cinematography contributes a great deal to the film’s moody, suspenseful atmosphere as well. Later in the film, there are two scenes in which only the actors are lit, so that they’re surrounded by black voids and frequently cast in shadows; the effect is stunning, and well-suited to the content. (I can’t say more than that without major spoilers, I’m afraid.) Malle may have been new to directing, but Elevator to the Gallows is a highly accomplished piece of filmmaking, full of intriguing characters, excellent performances, striking imagery and a story that’s fascinating from beginning to end.
Because Elevator to the Gallows is rather noirish in style and theme, a newcomer to classic movies who enjoyed it might want to look into other film noir. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) is an obvious choice, as it shares certain plot points with Elevator to the Gallows (so does Tay Garnett’s 1946 adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and countless others, undoubtedly), although the stylized dialogue may be a bit much for some classic film novices. My personal favorites in the genre include Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) is an offbeat example. Any one of them would probably be a good starting point, especially for viewers who appreciate memorable, larger than life characters. Additionally, they could try some of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, as they tend to involve crime, suspense and people — innocent and otherwise — caught up in circumstances beyond their control. I would suggest Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949) as well, which could act as a gateway to the director’s other work and Japanese films in general.
Someone who enjoyed Elevator to the Gallows might also want to look into other French films from the same period. There’s some debate over whether Malle should be considered part of the French New Wave. He didn’t start out as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma (like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette), nor was he part of the Left Bank group (Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and others), but he was their contemporary. During some of the scenes with Louis and Véronique, I found myself thinking of Michel and Patricia, the couple in Godard’s Breathless (1960), despite significant differences between them. Perhaps it was the way Louis plays a role — not just pretending to be Julien, but trying to appear more hardened than he really is; Michel, another car thief (and more), models himself on Humphrey Bogart. “The characters of the young hoodlum, played by Poujouly, and his girlfriend are a nod to what was coming,” Malle remarked on Parlons cinéma. “This film from the end of the ’50s was announcing the ’60s.” He was speaking about them as consumers, but from a cinematic standpoint, they do anticipate the countless young characters who would soon populate French New Wave movies.
For a rather playful French take on American noir, viewers could try Shoot the Piano Player (1960), directed by Truffaut, while those who want more Moreau might enjoy Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), in which she plays a woman who becomes romantically involved with two best friends in the early twentieth century. (Ernst Lubitsch’s 1933 film Design for Living makes a nice companion piece to Jules and Jim, and may well open up countless other avenues to new classic film fans.) If viewers wading into the French New Wave are interested in the work of female filmmakers, they should certainly check out Varda. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) is a fine introduction, and from there they could move on to her aesthetically pleasing and highly unsettling Le Bonheur (1965). For a non-New Wave director from the same era, Robert Bresson might be a good choice. Malle acknowledged his influence on Elevator to the Gallows in Malle on Malle: “The irony is, I was really split between my tremendous admiration for Bresson and the temptation to make a Hitchcock-like film. So there’s something about Elevator that goes from one to the other. In a lot of scenes, especially inside the elevator, I was trying to emulate Bresson.” Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and A Man Escaped (1956) are my favorites, and I would recommend the latter in particular to anyone encountering Bresson for the first time.
As for Malle himself, I have yet to watch his follow-up to Elevator to the Gallows, 1958’s The Lovers (also starring Moreau), but I have seen the next film he directed, Zazie dans le métro (1960), a decidedly quirky story about a cynical, mischievous little girl running wild while visiting her uncle in Paris. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, I’d say, and it’s also the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a live-action cartoon. At the other end of the spectrum is the grim, powerful The Fire Within (1963), which is about a recovering alcoholic who decides to commit suicide. It’s something of an Elevator to the Gallows reunion: Maurice Ronet plays the main character, and Jeanne Moreau makes a brief appearance. (I would also recommend Malle’s Au revoir les enfants, except that it’s from 1987 and therefore doesn’t fit into the classic film category. Consider it recommended anyway.) In addition to The Fire Within, Ronet fans would be well-advised to seek out René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960). It’s based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley but quite different from the 1999 adaptation in its tone and sometimes in its plot. They could then watch Clément’s Forbidden Games (1952), featuring a young Georges Poujouly (almost unrecognizable as Louis of Elevator to the Gallows), or they might want to see more of Purple Noon star Alain Delon, which would lead them to Jean-Pierre Melville, Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni, amongst others. Once they discover Visconti and Antonioni, there’s a whole world of great Italian cinema to explore (Fellini! De Sica! Rossellini!), and from there… Well, the possibilities are endless — quite ironic for a movie about being trapped in a small space.
This post is part of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid. Click the banner above to see all the other great posts.