Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) [DVD]
Director : Louis Malle
Screenplay : Louis Malle and Roger Nimier (based on the novel by Noël Calef)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1958
Stars : Jeanne Moreau (Florence Carala), Maurice Ronet (Julien Tavernier), Georges Poujouly (Louis), Yori Bertin (Veronique), Jean Wall (Simon Carala), Elga Andersen (Madame Bencker), Sylviane Aisenstein (Secretary), Micheline Bona (Genevieve)
The title of Louis Malle’s feature debut, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud), is something of a sick joke and a perfect summation of both the film itself and the film noir genre from which it derives its raison d’être. On the literal level, an elevator plays a major role in the film; in fact, the elevator is the story’s lynchpin, as its unexpected stasis transforms it into a temporary coffin that seals the fate of the film’s protagonist, ensuring that he does not get away with his murder-for-love plot. At the same time, though, Elevator to the Gallows is perfect shorthand for the working sensibility of virtually every film noir, as they almost invariably take the haunted protagonist on a slow, but inevitable ride to death.
In this case, the protagonist is Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a war veteran-turned-businessman who, in the film’s opening passages, murders his boss and makes it look like a suicide. The murder is intricately planned and flawlessly executed. All Julien has to do is leave the modernist glass-and-cement office building and reunite with Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), the boss’s much younger wife with whom he has been having an affair (hence the need to knock off the old man). However, fate is never on the side of film noir protagonists, and just before making his escape, Julien realizes that he has left behind an incriminating piece of evidence. He returns to the building only to find himself trapped in the elevator when the power is turned off for the weekend.
Meanwhile, things go from bad to worse as Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique (Yori Bertin), two Parisian kids with nothing better to do, steal Julien’s car and take a joyride that ends in murder at a hotel where they have registered as “Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier.” Thus, even if Julien’s attempt to disguise his boss’s murder as suicide succeeds, he has been implicated in another murder, which all but ensures that he will pay the ultimate price. The only question is whether he will be caught for his own murder or someone else’s.
Elevator to the Gallows is justly famous on a number of levels. First, it was the debut of Louis Malle, who worked on the fringes of the vaunted New Wave in France throughout the 1960s, but was never fully a member, largely because his multi-varied work (he never seemed to make the same film twice) couldn’t fit easily into an auterist analysis. As his only clear-cut genre effort, the film stands out from the rest of Malle’s work; it bears only the faintest traces of the absorbing humanism that would define most of his career. Rather, Elevator to the Gallows is a clockwork thriller, primed and executed with a ruthless intensity that suggests a filmmaker of great skill and dexterity (Malle was only 25 when it was released).
The film also features a largely improvised score by the great American jazz artist Miles Davis, which was recorded in a single session with a handful of musicians. The music throughout the film is nothing short of amazing in the way it grabs center stage, but then quietly recedes, both underlining the action and defining it. There is an essence of cool detachment in the film that is unmistakably related to the jazz score, and it isn’t surprising that so many of the New Wave filmmakers would incorporate similar music into their films.
However, part of the reason Elevator to the Gallows works so well is because Malle doesn’t allow it to be just an exercise in style and tone. Rather, he imbues the film with a sense of hopeless romanticism, embodied primarily in Jean Moreau’s Florence, who is forced to wander the Parisian streets all night (shot beautifully by Henri Decaë, who would lens François Truffaut’s seminal The 400 Blows the next year) like a lost spirit while her lover fatefully remains trapped in the elevator. Believing that Julien has left with another woman, she nevertheless refuses to give up on him, which gives weight to the proclamations of love she gives over the phone in the film’s ravishing opening close-ups.
Despite having worked in film for nearly two decades by 1958, Elevator to the Gallows was the film that made Moreau a star, largely because Malle was the first director to really understand how to use her intense sensuality. Florence’s love for Julien and her refusal to give up on him gives the film an undercurrent of pained romantic longing that softens its modern-cool detachment. It comes very close to being a thriller with heart.
|Elevator to the Gallows Criterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||April 28, 2006|
|Elevator to the Gallows was restored and re-released theatrically in 2005, which is fully reflected in the near-pristine image quality on Criterion’s DVD. The new high-definition anamorphic transfer was taken from the original 35mm fine-grain print and digitally restored. The image is crisp and clean, with excellent contrast and shadow detail. The infamous images of Jeanne Moreau walking down the Champs-Elysee lit only by the storefront windows look as magnificent as I’m sure they did in 1958.|
|The original French monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm optical track print and digitally restored, sounds excellent, allowing Miles Davis’s justifiably famous jazz score to really shine.|
|Even though they just released the impressive “3 Films by Louis Malle” box set, Criterion has not cut any corners on this special edition of Elevator to the Gallows in terms of supplements. An entire second disc is dedicated to a variety of new and archival interviews and other supplementary materials. |
There are two new video interviews, both of which run a bit over 15 minutes: one with actress Jeanne Moreau and one with original soundtrack session pianist René Urtreger, the only member of the soundtrack musicians still alive (his interview originally appeared on the French DVD). There is an archival interview with Louis Malle from Canadian television in 1975, the majority of which is spent discussing his work with Jacques Cousteau and Elevator to the Gallows. There is also an archival interview from French television of actor Maurice Ronet, which was recorded just before he starred in Malle’s film. The last archival interview is a roundtable discussion from the 1993 Cannes Film Festival featuring Malle and Moureau.
An entire section of the supplements is dedicated solely to Miles Davis’s soundtrack. Included here is footage shot during the actual recording session featuring Davis playing and Malle discussing the use of music in the film, as well as an intriguing new 25-minute featurette about the soundtrack that features interviews with jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis and critic Gary Giddins.
Lastly, the disc includes Crazeologie, Malle’s 1954 absurdist student film featuring the title song by Charlie Parker and the original and re-release theatrical trailers. The 25-page insert booklet features an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty, an interview with Louis Malle excerpted from the 1993 book Malle on Malle, and a tribute by film producer Vincent Malle
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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