“We’ll only be together in the headlines.”
Director Louis Malle was just 25 years old when his first non-documentary feature Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud) was released in June 1958. With two shorts and a documentary feature he co-directed with Jacques Costeau under his belt, Malle set out to make a commercial B-level movie in order to get funding for future films. The result is the suspenseful, perfectly crafted and beautifully photographed Elevator to the Gallows re-released in 2006 by Criterion. Based on the French pulp fiction novel by Noel Calef, and with the story set to a haunting Miles Davis score, this noir tale of adultery and murder is tempered by a chain of ill-fated events. No matter how slick a plan is, no matter how well it’s executed, it’s always the unexpected events, the things that you can’t plan for that ultimately trip up the murderer’s scheme.
The film begins with a phone call between Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). It’s a frantic phone call with more than an edge of desperation. The camera focuses on close ups of the mouths of these lovers as they pour their anguish and passion into the telephone. But aside from all the words of love, Florence and Julien are finalizing their plans to murder her husband, wealthy middle-aged arms dealer Simon Carala (Jean Wall).
It seems to be the perfect plan. Julien, who works for Carala, is a former paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion. He’s served in Indochina and Algeria, and his experiences have left him fit, bitter and more than capable of murder. Combined with the fact that he despises Carala for reaping fat profits from war, he also wants his boss’s wife, and so with the motive and justification, Julien now waits for the perfect opportunity. His proximity to Carala gives him that opportunity, but he needs an alibi.
Julien’s well mapped out plan depends on precision timing and easy access to Carala. Julien is supposedly working in his office with a secretary outside in the next room when he uses a grappling iron to climb up to Carala’s secured office. Here he murders Carala but stages the crime to look like a suicide. After positioning the body, he looks back at his work to check the details. As he looks at Carala’s corpse, a black cat–a portent of bad luck–passes in the background and walks along the railings of the high rise building. And this is the very last moment that events are in Julien’s control.
At this point in the film, the plot splinters into three segments–one segment follows Julien, another follows Florence as she wanders the streets of Paris, and another section of the plot follows the fate of two young Parisians who embark on a joyride that ends in murder. These components of the plot are then woven together to accentuate suspense and the idea that Julien and his lover, Florence are plagued with bad luck and ill-fated timing.
Elevator to the Gallows is an extremely clever, well-made film. Many crime films rely on coincidences that defy credibility, but Elevator to the Gallows is not formulaic and avoids coincidence by replacing it with sheer bad luck and ill-fated timing. The murder of Carala takes place efficiently and exactly as planned at the beginning of the film, but the scheme begins to unravel from the moment of Carala’s death. A plan is just a plan until a killer commits the irreversible act of murder, but once at the point of no return, a murderer has no choice but to try and repair a botched scheme. Julien’s decision to return to the crime scene is correct, but trying to repair the plan–once it’s gone awry–complicates matters, and the odds of Julien pulling off the murder successfully become slimmer as the night wears on. It’s a bitter irony that Julien’s sure-fire alibi will spring him from one murder scene but will land him firmly in another.
Florence is Julien’s partner in crime, yet interestingly, the film emphasizes Florence’s desperation and emotional fragility. These facets of her character are underscored by cinematographer Henri Decae’s naturalistic style. Accentuating her youth and vulnerability, the camera visualizes Florence as a delicate femme fatale shot in close-up, with her face without make up often filling the entire screen. As Florence wanders through the night looking for Julien, she’s wet and cold and takes shelter in a series of cafes where lone men sit and wait like predatory wolves. These camera techniques and plot devices place Florence in a sympathetic position of victim hood, and yet this is a woman who plots the murder of her husband and can’t wait to dash into her lover’s arms once the deed is done. This portrayal of Florence is in contrast to some of the greats in American noir that typically include a hard-edged dame whose plans to rid herself of the inconvenience of a husband do not include a lasting bond with the male tool who aids in the process (Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Jane Palmer in Too Late for Tears). While another infamous femme fatale, Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice appears to genuinely desire to be with hapless handyman Frank Chambers (John Garfield), there’s always the uncomfortable feeling that the lover she manipulates to set her free from the bonds of matrimony may very well just have been the first sap who walked through the door.
The camera also emphasizes space and distance–beginning with the film’s very first scene of the lovers who can connect only via telephone. Some of the most spectacular shots include the scene in which Julien drops a piece of lit paper down into the elevator shaft in an effort to judge the height of the stranded elevator car. Another brilliant scene involves Julien and two police interrogators as he is questioned in a room full of dark shadows and lit only by a single light bulb that dangles from the ceiling.
Anyone interested in noir or Jeanne Moreau, will find the film riveting. On top of that, the Criterion print looks great and is well worth the purchase.