Director Louis Malle is typically remembered by the average American for his English language films. Specifically, Atlantic City (1980), starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, earned Malle an Oscar nomination for best director and My Dinner with Andre (1981) recently served as the intertextual inspiration for an episode “Community” (2009-). Yet, his first feature film, the French noir Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, 1958), is a beautiful juxtaposition of American and French culture: a film noir starring the beautiful Jeanne Moreau and haunted by an improvised Miles Davis score. I’ve spent the past two summers at Pajiba providing retrospectives of film noir. In 2009, I counted down five of my favorite noirs of the classical period. Last summer, I re-visited noir from the perspective in its most self-reflexive stage, neo-noir. This summer, beginning with this review, I’ll be looking at the international side of film noir.
Noir is often thought of as a profoundly American cultural product, a manifestation of post-World War II tensions: men returning from war, dealing with wives who have successfully transitioned into the work place, only to find a world that is defined by violence and disillusionment. Yet, noir is undoubtedly an international phenomenon. By taking stylistic cues from German Expressionism and French Poetic Realism and émigré talent from Europe from during the occupation (most notably Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, and many others), directors of the first noirs were not aware they were making noir films. It was not until a rush of backlogged American cinematic product flooded the screens of France that French critics began to note a certain darkness in domestic dramas, melodramas, and thrillers. From the writings of Nino Frank, it quickly began to be called film noir.
Elevator to the Gallows captures that international cocktail of influences. Shot by Henri Decaë (the cinematographer who went on to work with François Truffaut on The 400 Blows and helped define the French noir look with Jean-Pierre Melville) in low-key black and white and Davis’s weeping trumpet, the film tells a rather straight forward tale of two illicit lovers, Florence Carala (Moreau) and her husband’s (Jean Wall) employee Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). As most of these stories go, the lovers plot to kill the unknowing spouse and run off with his money. Their plot involves Julien rappelling up the side of the building and sneaking in to perform the murder unseen. Julien performs the execution, stages the scene to look like a suicide, and leaves, only to discover once he has reached the street below that he left his grappling hook hanging off the balcony.
Julien flees back into the building and retrieves the incriminating evidence, only to become trapped inside the office building’s elevator. He has no way of reaching his partner in crime and frantically tries to escape the elevator. Meanwhile, his sports car is stolen by two French youth (Geroges Poujouly and Yori Bertin) who become involved in a scuffle that leaves a German couple dead, courtesy of Julien’s pistol. Thus, Julien finds himself the murderer in two cases, even though he has only committed one (not that I’m justifying his actions, but noir fans know how the webs of fate quickly spin against a murderous protagonist). When Julien finally escapes, he finds a police force that believes buys Julien’s suicide set-up but is pursuing him for the murder of the German tourists. Florence tries to track down French youth while Julien is being held in order to exonerate him.
Gallows is particularly memorable for the way in which Malle weaves the cinematography, score, and shots of the lovely Moreau walking down vacant Parisian streets into a claustrophobic and foreboding atmosphere. Noir films are often remembered for the binary between free will and fate with the former being an illusion disguising the latter. Gallows embodies this in a beautiful conclusion that, of course, I cannot spoil here. But, at a brisk 88 minutes, you can’t do much better than this haunting, sexy, Franco-Noir tone poem.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.