Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Louis Malle's feature debut is a total mood piece, a Gallic riff on the fatalism of noir complete with an atmospheric Miles Davis score. As such, it has trace elements of playfulness within its structure (the German couple who play a crucial role in the narrative are a blithe hoot, and Malle had to be grinning when he had a black cat cross the lead's path as he's climbing out a window to murder his boss), but for the most part Malle plays it straight. What he does bring to the table that distinguishes this from any number of B-movies with similar plots is a real wounded empathy for his foolish characters; they may be driven by base instincts, and they may have gotten themselves caught up in unsavory situations, but they are still human beings in Malle's eyes, and they deserve to be treated as such. Nowhere is this more evident than in what appears to be the last scene with Louis and Veronique. As the scene ends, Malle moves into a sorrowful fade to black that surprises because our sympathies haven't been aligned with these two until now. They're just a couple of stupid kids, and Louis's violent delinquencies are what ruins the lives of everyone in the film, but Malle shows them at their most denuded. Most noirs (including many I love) ratchet up the cynicism and paranoia; Malle knows that these people are going to be tripped up by their own vices, and that fills him with a great sadness. Aside from that, it's just a fine piece of noir in its own right -- the early bits with the kids grate, but the plight of Julien, trapped in an elevator and unable to retrieve damning evidence from the room where he killed his boss, is razor-sharp. The screenplay, too, is a wonderful example of plant-and-payoff plotting, with certain elements (i.e. the jacket) offhandedly set up long before they even begin to matter. There's also the small matter of Jeanne Moreau and her extraordinary, on-the-edge-of-collapse performance. I gotta see me some more Malle now...

Grade: B+


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