'Elevator': In Paris, a Rising Sense of Dread

Felix Marten and Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle's
Felix Marten and Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows," a 1958 film in which the city of Paris plays a major part. (Rialto Pictures)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005

Normally, you'd be in pretty good shape if you planned the perfect murder based on the principle that what goes up must come down; isn't that a no-brainer? But if you were in the film noir universe, such certainty would be ill-advised. That's the place where what climbs doesn't necessarily descend, and when it doesn't, off you go to the hanging tree.

The movie in question is the superb little French find "Elevator to the Gallows" (love that cool title! so very noir!), which the great Louis Malle directed in 1958 at age 25, years before "Lacombe Lucien," "Atlantic City" and "Pretty Baby," and starring the great Jeanne Moreau at age 29, years before "Jules et Jim" and "Diary of a Chambermaid." France, at the time, was a mere 169, which may explain the freshness of everything, all these dewy-eyed youngsters collaborating on a dark, nifty work that argues we are all screwed, no matter what.

Who cannot love nihilism like that from people who lack wrinkles or disappointing children to give them character? As Malle has it, ex-airborne officer Capt. Tavernier (uber-Frenchy Maurice Ronet), in love with his industrialist boss's wife (and who wouldn't be with the practically perfect young Moreau, who even then had eyes wiser than most encyclopedias), decides to take out hubby but disguise the crime as a suicide. This demands a paratrooper's bravado, by which, after establishing with the operator that he is in his office, he leaves that office for the window ledge, climbs two floors -- the last by way of a grappling hook and rope -- then presses the man's own pistol against his head and pulls the trigger. He jiggers the door to lock behind him, then returns to his own office, verifies to the operator that he is there, and makes a big show of leaving.

He's gotten away with murder, the lush babe and all that inherited dough is awaiting him, he's in his cool '49 Pontiac convertible, it's Paris, but we all know the best laid plans of mice, men and rats always go astray. He realizes: He left the damn grappling hook up there. He sneaks back in, heads up by elevator and is in mid-passage when the building security goon snaps off the power. The Captain therefore finds himself in something going up that will never come down, till Monday at least.

That's just the first act in a film that proceeds to chart the ramifications of this smart guy's extremely bad luck. While he's in the elevator, a teenage hipster couple who may have influenced Jean-Luc Godard's not-yet-made "Breathless" (it would come along in '60) steal the cool car and set off on a feckless crime spree that leaves two admittedly annoying German tourists dead. Alas, they leave the Captain's car, sign the Captain's name to a motel register, use the Captain's gun and are identified as the Captain and Tennille, no, no, a joke, a joke , they are identified as the Captain and his mystery girlfriend by intimidated witnesses.

Thus you have a situation that reflects the pure existentialism of the universe: The Captain cannot reveal his alibi for the murder of the tourists because it is the murder of his boss.

Of course, in certain hands and certain cities this could be but a minor pleasure, maybe a nice twist on an old "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," set in a generic American nowhere. What turns it fabulous, indeed mythical, is the presence of another entity: Paris at night in the '50s, to the tune of Miles Davis's score as realized in the dappled hues of Henri Decae's gorgeous poetic cinematography. Malle and Decae took their camera into the streets and along the highways, and rode with Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin on their race to hell, hair flying, minds clouded, hormones raging. Or they stayed with Moreau as she wanders the city, searching for her missing lover, the rain pelting down, as she wanders frantically -- "Frantic" was the U.S. title in '59 -- from bright zinc bar to bright zinc bar.

Or he focused on Ronet, smoking cigarettes like he's, I don't know, French or something, trying to figure out how to escape from his ordeal by ascenseur without falling through the escape hatch to his death six floors below. Luck and fate blow through this sinister universe, playing neat little tricks, almost as if someone really smart has planned the whole thing out.

Meanwhile, on the track, Miles is wailing away, riffs of doom and pain and the utter indifference of the machine called the universe, the rain falls, everything spills toward yet further disaster.

Elevator to the Gallows (87 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is not rated but contains scenes of gun violence and psychological intensity. It is in French with newly translated English subtitles.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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