13 May 2010

Don't You Just Hate it When You Commit the Perfect Crime Only to then Get Stuck in an Elevator?

The film opens with Jeanne Moreau's gorgeous 30 year old face filling the screen. She is saying, "I love you," repeatedly. Whatever happens for the rest of the movie, Ms. Moreau had me at "I...."

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) is French New Wave Film Noir. The noir aspect of it means that the crime at the heart of the story will not go unpunished. We live with this when we watch 40's and 50's noir. We will be sucked into sympathizing with characters that cannot, by the rules of cinema at the time, succeed.

If we allow ourselves to, we can wonder at how they will be undone. Better still we can enjoy the story for what it is. Like mystery and detective stories, characters must be well drawn and strong and the plot imaginative. Director Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows does not disappoint on either score.

Moreau's character, Florence, is married to a wealthy arms trader. He is an older man and we shouldn't be surprised that she has fallen for his younger, more handsome right hand man Julien (Maurice Ronet), a decorated army veteran. We shouldn't be surprised that anyone would fall for Florence or for that matter anyone else who looks like Ms. Moreau. Julien is so smitten that he'll kill the boss for her.

The first part of the crime comes off without a hitch. The cuckold is dead and for all the world it looks like a suicide and its impossible to see how Julien can be implicated. Ahh but there's always a matter of human error that will pop up along the way. When Julien realizes he has forgotten a rather conspicuous piece of evidence that would surely implicate him, he tries to return to the scene of the crime. But the elevator he rides gets stuck between floors and a whole unexpected chain of events have been set off.

This will include an amazingly stupid young couple who steal Julien's car and ride off into the night where they commit their own crimes. Meanwhile Julien has missed his rendezvous with Florence. She doesn't know what to think and proceeds to try to think it anyway. While walking the streets of Paris, sometimes in the rain, stopping at a bar or two in the process. This makes for some famous shots of Ms. Moreau that helped propel her to stardom. There was the raw beauty of her face, sans make up, that expressed so much of the inner turmoil that would surely be bubbling within this character. Malle's career was off and running from that point on as well.

Oddly, the two stars don't actually get the lion's share of screen time. The two misfit young crooks probably get an equal amount, but Moreau and Ronet are the ones we will remember. The teenaged thieves get into one deuce of pickle and subsequently manage to botch a double suicide. But while they're galavanting around it is the stoicism of the two older lovers that is the glue of picture. While Florence walks and wonders, Julien is left quite stuck in a confined space and alternately determined to extricate himself and resigned to his sad fate. Ronet, like Moreau, had to make do with very little dialogue and he was playing a man who was by nature self contained, methodical, unemotional. Not the easiest of parts and he handled it with aplomb.

The story twists and turns in surprising ways, that while seemingly not plausible are more than possible. We buy everything that happens within ETTG because we like its style so much.   The lovely soundtrack from Miles Davis, who recorded it in one night while chilling with Malle and Moreau and sipping champagne, is as indispensable to the story's allure as Moreau's face.

A key question about any film noir is whether, after having had its secrets revealed, you would want to watch it again. With regard to ETTG I am not alone in answering with an emphatic, yes. There is so much to enjoy that goes beyond plot points. Like any film that one considers "great" it is a joy to look at. Savor is the proper word for it. Any time a director decides to bookend his movie with the face of Jeanne Moreau, you know he's one smart cookie.

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