Obscure film review: “Elevator the Gallows” is a gripping tale of love, fate and melancholy
Music and Society Editor
Standing in a phone booth, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) proclaims with breathy, passionate desperation, “I’m the one who can’t take anymore. I love you. I love you. So we have to … I won’t leave you, Julien. You know I’ll be there,” preceding a rendezvous with her lover, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). The camera centers on her face, highlighting the expression in her eyes and foreshadowing her emblazoned devotion to Julien, a man whom she risks her life for.
These are the opening moments of “Elevator to the Gallows” (“Ascenseur pour l’échafaud”), beginning in medias res and quickly revealing the sinister nature of the aforementioned dialogue. Julien is about to murder Florence’s husband to run away with her and the phone call solidifies what their plans would be after the act.
While Julien successfully carries out the murder, in an oversight, he leaves a piece of evidence behind. When he races to retrieve it, he becomes trapped in the elevator with no means of escape, setting up the plot for the remainder of the film.
“Elevator to the Gallows” is a French noir thriller that was released in 1958. The screenplay was adapted from a novel of the same name by Noël Calef. It was the feature debut of Louis Malle, a 24-year-old up-and-comer, who is now credited with being one of the predecessors of the French New Wave film movement, a period of great experimentation and innovation in cinema history taking place in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Henri Decae did the camerawork and played a large role in defining the cinematography of the New Wave with natural lighting and long shots — techniques utilized in this early example.
In terms of the plot, “Elevator to the Gallows” is highly unconventional and the risks pay off in a big way by the conclusion. Julien remains stuck in the elevator for nearly the entire duration of the story, leaving Florence wandering the streets of Paris searching for him and wondering what went wrong.
Despite driving the narrative, the two lovers never physically meet in the film. In the meantime, two spontaneous teens steal Julien’s car and get into their own host of trouble, leading to later implications for Julien.
Florence’s nighttime odyssey is the standout element of the film. Moreau’s performance in her role as Florence was what launched her career from a “B-movie” actress to a full-fledged star, and has contributed to the lasting appeal of the movie.
Illuminated only by natural light from the storefronts, Decae uses continuous tracking shots to follow her path and show her turmoil. Moreau’s saunter is directly contrasted against her own vulnerable voice narrating over softer dialogue and ambient noise, outlining her internal struggles and fear for not only Julien’s safety, but his devotion to her.
Jazz legend Miles Davis composed a legendary score, giving this scene a haunting and suggestive quality. Davis was commissioned by Malle, a jazz aficionado himself, to do the score and improvised his playing, completing it in one session live while watching the film.
The soundtrack was not only significant in terms of inspiring other New Wave films to include jazz in their soundtracks, but was also the precursor to Davis’ creative shift toward modal jazz. This stylistic shift would pave the way for his seminal 1959 album, “Kind of Blue,” which is regarded as the greatest jazz album of all time.
The Davis score, Decae cinematography and fresh direction from Malle, paired with the luminous performance of Jeanne Moreau, are what have cemented “Elevator to the Gallows” as one of the most influential French films of all time. Its melancholy, and it’s portrayal of the characters as wholly bound by uncontrollable factors, speaks to the general environment of France at the time of filming.
Shot in the aftermath of the Algerian War, “Gallows” portrays the nihilistic attitude of youth culture — the intended audience of the film. The existential spirit of Camus and Sartre, contemporary writers at the time, are captured in the helplessness and disillusionment of the characters, constantly acting in desperation.
“Elevator to the Gallows” is an important document, signalling the birth of radical filmmaking that — despite the film’s age — still feels exciting and fresh today.