Louis Malle is rarely associated with the Nouvelle Vague; in fact, his stature as one of the great filmmakers is possibly ignored because of the auteur leanings of that French filmmaking movement. Ironically, his first narrative feature film, Elevator to the Gallows aka Lift to the Scaffold, demonstrates many of that movement’s trademarks – using actual Paris locations, repurposing a classic Hollywood genre (in this case film noir), toying with traditional editing and narrative techniques, and employing a revolutionary musical score, in this case inspiring Miles Davis to riff live to the pictures on screen to create one of the great movie soundtracks.
Apart from the score, Elevator to the Gallows is possibly best remembered for introducing actress Jeanne Moreau to international audiences. And she is the reason that this fine movie is receiving a rare opportunity to be seen on the big screen as part of Alliance Francais’ Classic Film Festival, which is reviving a handful of her movies as a celebration of this iconic figure of cinema. (Even though the festival will also travel to Perth in October, unfortunately this particular film will not screen there.)
In Elevator she plays a woman who has Julian (Maurice Ronet) murder her husband, wealthy arms industrialist Simon (Jean Wall). When everything goes pear-shaped, she scours the city looking for her lover, whilst a young delinquent couple go joy-riding in his car, which leads to tragedy. This simple, suspenseful narrative contains plenty of subtext too; commenting on France’s post-war relationship with Germany, and the lucrative arms industry benefitting from wars in Indochina and Algeria, and the innocents stuck in the day-to-day middle of it all. But these touchpoints are never laboured, as Malle was most interested in telling a great story, told in an invigorating cinematic style, filled with robust characters and relationships.
Jeanne Moreau is complex in this film, she is neither heroine nor femme fatale. We do not get much of a backstory to her character’s motivations, but are engrossed in her journey nonetheless. It’s a tribute to her screen magnetism and an acting style that transcends 1958 – compare her performance to some of the other cast and you can see why she is regarded as one of the great actors of all time.
Louis Malle is today best remembered for his work in the US such as Pretty Baby and Atlantic City, and the autobiographical Au Revoir les Enfants which he made late in his too-short life. Elevator to the Gallows shows a filmmaker tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of the time, excited about the possibilities of cinema, and it’s a treasure to find it on the big screen again.