"Elevator to the Gallows" was the first feature film by the great French director Louis Malle, who made it when he was 25. It's a film noir, neatly plotted, briskly executed and crunching in its cleverness. Maurice Ronet plays a former paratrooper now working in business. In love with his boss's wife (luminous Jeanne Moreau, then 29), he works out a bold scheme. He will lock himself in his office, climb out his window, ascend two stories, murder the older man with his own gun to make it look like a suicide, then return to his office and leave. The "suicide" won't be discovered for two days, since it is the weekend.

It works perfectly; then it goes so wrong it's almost funny. He forgets a piece of equipment, heads back upstairs secretly (everyone has seen him leave) and gets stuck in the elevator. Meanwhile, a young couple steal his car and go on a crime wave, murdering two German tourists, inadvertently leaving clues that point to Ronet. What a pickle!

Malle, who had until then worked on underwater documentaries with Jacques Cousteau, shows a great sense of pace, performance and atmosphere. Though the 1958 film features three on-screen killings, it's much less a study of violence than the mysterious workings of fate.

But best of all, the cinematography by Henri Decae and the score by Miles Davis create an extraordinary sense of Paris in the '50s. You can't ever go there, but the movie is the next best thing -- besides, it's short!

-- Stephen Hunter