ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS
Review by Gordon Justesen
Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin, Jean Wall
Director: Louis Malle
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Features: See Review
Length: 91 Minutes
Release Date: February 6, 2018
“You see madam, there are always several photos in a camera.”
Few fillmmakers could ever hope to match Hitchcock, and few could ever hope to match the filmmaker during his reign as the master of movie suspense in the late 50s/early 60s. And yet, French director Louis Malle managed to do both with his first feature directorial effort in 1958, Elevator to the Gallows.
Malle, formerly a documentary filmmaker, incorporated so much to make this enterprise quite an innovative one as far as noir thrillers go. The combination of New Wave techniques, an unconventional jazz score courtesy of the great Miles Davis, and a plot that essentially takes place in real time put a whole new spin on the “murder gone wrong” scenario. Only this film carries the added bonus of having TWO murders that go wrong.
We open in on the face of Florence (Jeanne Moreau), on the phone with her lover, Julien (Maurice Ronet). They are carefully plotting the murder of her husband and his boss, arms dealer Simon (Jean Wall). We then see the elaborate process of the murder plot go down, as Julien goes to great lengths to make his way into Simon’s office to shoot him and give the illusion of a suicide, right before the office building closes for the night, after which he will meet up with Florence at a specific location and the two will run away together.
All goes as planned, until Julien gets in his car and notices a key piece of evidence in full view that will give him away. He then heads back to the office building to fix this error. Little does he know that doing this will set into motion an unforseen series of events producing an entirely different set of consequences.
Once Julien departs his car, a young nearby couple, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique (Yori Bertin), make a sudden decision to steal Julien’s car for a joyride through town. This leads them to crossing paths with a German tourist couple, who invite them back to their motel room for a drink. Things take an unexpected fatal turn, all the while Louis has assumed Julien’s identity.
Added to the ingenious plotting of the parallel stories is the fantastic technical aspects on display here. The hand held camera work by cinematographer Henri Decae adds an authentic richness to both the proceedings and, especially, the Paris setting. And the one-of-a-kind music score from Miles Davis (which was entirely improvised) brings a unique sound rarely heard in films of this type, or films in general at the time, resulting in doing wonders for Davis’ career as well as a turning point for movie soundtracks.
There’s nothing like discovering a gem in a genre you love so much, which is very much the case with Elevator to the Gallows. Louis Malle enjoyed a great career of crafting pieces of multiple genres, and being that this was his first feature (made available through Criterion) made me want to check it out. Little did I know I would be discovering one of the most masterful pieces of noir filmmaking to ever exist!
Though this was previously available from Criterion as a two-disc DVD release, I’m only now discovering the film by way of this new Blu-ray release from the studio. While I’m sure the previous release contained a strong video presentation, the one provided here has to be the best one yet. Sourced from a 2K restoration, the film looks as grand as one could ever hope for a late 50s Black and White release. The amazing texture and detail in the picture is of spectacular, knockout quality. The black levels, especially, shine throughout. Criterion once again illustrates just how films of this era should appear in HD!
The PCM Mono mix benefits heavily from the remarkable Miles Davis score, which is present for a good 90% of the film. And the balance between it and the dialogue, as well as the ambient sounds in and around the Paris setting is terrifically strong. All in all, a remarkable piece of sound quality for a film that is 60 years old!
Criterion has imported all of the extras from it’s two-disc DVD release onto a single Blu-ray disc. There’s no commentary track here, but we are supplied a great lineup of features, nonetheless! Among them are an interview with actress Jeanne Moreau, as well as archival interviews with director Louis Malle, Moreau and co-star Maurice Ronet, and soundtrack session pianist Rene Urtreger. There’s also amazing footage of Miles Davis and Louis Malle from the soundtrack recording session, in addition to a video program about the score with jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis and critic Gary Giddins. Rounding out the extras is Malle's student film, “Crazeologie” (which features the title song by Charlie Parker), Trailers and an insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty, an interview With Louis Malle, and a tribute by film producer Vincent Malle.
Elevator to the Gallows marks a remarkable feature directorial debut for the most versatile Louis Malle. It’s richly atmospheric and perfectly paced piece of film noir. It’s Hitchcock with a French New Wave twist, and ranks right up with that director’s very best! Criterion’s Blu-ray release is a sure fire must own!