It feels presumptuous and even a bit pretentious to recommend Elevator to the Gallows (1958), given that virtually every critic of note and individual enlightened movie-goers everywhere already know for themselves what a sad delight director Louis Malle's elegant tragedy remains even after so many years. It also feels altogether bewildering deciding where to begin discussing the lauds and accolades this bizarre and brilliant picture continues to earn. Liberated somewhere between film noir and European art cinema, Elevator to the Gallows has been burdened with the New Wave or Nouvelle Vague label, an unfair weight to the extent that this film may well deserve a category unto itself.
Louis Malle was twenty-four when he filmed this movie, using street lights and other natural forms, as well as a baby carriage to hold the camera during the semi-famous string of scenes where Jeanne Moreau as Florence Carala walks the late night streets in somnambulist semi-paralysis in search of her beloved, Julien Tavernier, played with understated flair by Maurice Ronet. Twenty-four years old--and there are life-times within this movie. Moreau had been a big deal stage actress prior to this, her first feature appearance, yet she moves from worry to disappointment, denial to acceptance, rejection to commitment and finally dissipation, all constructed around the simple phrase "Je t'aime" because her strikingly lovely face transmogrifies with each crack in the sidewalk as she staggers with dignity from one locale to another in search of Julien, the man who has murdered her husband and whom she erroneously suspects of deserting her for a younger woman.
In point of fact, Julien works for Mr. Carala, a big time arms dealer who has made a fortune in the Indochina war and more recently in Algiers. Tavernier has served Carala's interests in both wars as a paratrooper, somewhere along the way falling in love with his boss's wife. After shooting Carala with the victim's own gun and staging the scene to look like a suicide, Julien--who has many traits of a secret agent (from the Maxwell Smart school of spying)--discovers that he has left behind a clue that will blow his cover. Intending to make a quick return to the crime scene, he leaves his car running and double parked, then gets stuck in the elevator over night after the building's power is cut off. His car is stolen, of course. The two thieves are a young couple, Veronique (the kind of fool who's afraid of everything, yet loves the excitement of being bad) and Louis (a good-bad-but-not-evil lad who would have turned the heads of the girls in the Shangri-Las). They encounter a German couple at an out-of-the-way hotel and decide to have Louis impersonate Julien. A rather ugly crime transpires, and the police suspect Tavernier of a double murder, one which he did not commit. The former paratrooper finds himself in the unhappy position of having as his only alibi that he did not kill the German couple because he was stuck in an elevator after murdering his employer so that he and the widow could live happily ever after.
It spoils nothing to share the plot here because the exquisite majesty of this movie carries the plot on its own shoulders. The aforementioned sequences of Moreau along the night streets of Paris, the smoke ring chains of Mile Davis' improvised soundtrack, the lovesick stupidity of Louis and Veronique bungling their own suicides, and the general decadence of the upper class and their immediate underlings who have to stay schnockered to live through the evil banality of their daytime existences, the crumbling confidence and malignant hostility that Julien Tavernier uses to mask what turns out to be about as substantial as an expensive paint job over a rusted out jalopy: these are the visual elements that keep our eyes focused on the screen as the story unwraps in front of us.
Because of the perfect use of natural light and shadow, as well as the moral darkness of the characters, Elevator may remind the viewer of the film noir movement, while more erudite viewers than myself have suggested that this film is a contender for the first ever French New Wave cinema production. That sort of information may be nice for those who build lists. For the rest of us, however, what matters is that Louis Malle had never made a feature-length movie before this one [he would later direct Pretty Baby (yawn), Atlantic City (hooray!) and My Dinner with Andre (double secret yay!), among others], yet somehow managed to convey generations of experience and knowledge that decades of revisiting still struggle to fathom.