Elevator to the Gallows (1958)


Director: Louis Malle

Executive Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) murders his boss, who’s also the husband of his mistress Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau). He expertly plans and pulls off the murder right at quitting time on Saturday, climbing to an upper floor, killing Carala with his own gun and staging the scene as a locked room suicide. On his way out, Julien spies a black cat on railing, an ominous sign of the mistakes, misunderstandings and rotten luck that will doom him and others in this smart and stylish noir.

Julien makes a show of leaving with his secretary and the office security guard, but after everyone’s gone, he notices he forgot to take down the rope and hook he used to climb to Carala’s office. When he races back into the building he gets stuck in the elevator until Sunday morning. Meanwhile, Veronique the flower shop girl (Yori Bertin) and her delinquent boyfriend Louis (Georges Poujouly) steal Julien’s car, impersonate him, murder a couple of German tourists (Ivan Petrovich and Elga Andersen), and then decide to leave this world as celebrities, in a glamorous double suicide. Florence sees Julien’s car go by with Veronique inside, and naturally assumes Julien has stood her up. By the time Julien gets out of that elevator, his world is upside down; people stare and point, his face is plastered on the front page for a double murder that he didn’t do, and nobody believes his nutty elevator alibi, which he’s reluctant to bring up since it ties him to the murder he did do.

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All through that Saturday night a storm is brewing and thunder rolls as Florence memorably wanders the neon-lit and Miles Davis-scored Paris streets like a zombie, oblivious to traffic and wallowing in the mess of her adultery and murder plot. She visits all the places she went with Julien to find signs of him or his intentions, worries and wonders if he even managed to pull off the crime, or if he’s abandoned her like he did another woman she meets that night. At one point in her ongoing internal monologue Florence says it herself: I must be mad, and Moreau enacts that obsession and despair through the night’s shift from frantic search to depressed resignation. She’s so numb by the morning that she doesn’t even pull the “don’t you know who I am” card when she’s arrested for prostitution. It’s the police who figure out she’s the Mrs. Carala and let her go, but not before she inadvertently adds to the circumstantial case against Julien for the German tourist murders. Florence comes alive again when she learns she wasn’t abandoned, at which point she tries to “save” Julien by locating the young couple who, in another big botch that weekend, have failed to kill themselves. By trying to beat Louis to a key piece of evidence–photos that place the young couple with the Germans–Florence walks right into a trap that implicates all four of them in their respective crimes. Nobody escapes.

In most “perfect crime” stories the viewer makes a game, and the detective character a career, of finding that one thing that can go wrong, but this plot surprises even the most seasoned spotters with a chain of errors that initially seem small and silly but are solid enough to bear the weight of the movie’s themes of fatalism, class resentment, war weariness, modernism vs. humanity, and even some dark comedy. Between that stupid forgotten rope and leaving his running car unattended in front of envious brats, Julien hands out all kinds of incriminating tools. With Julien’s car, clothes, gun and papers, Louis the contemptible punk and his adoring fangirl can indulge their worst qualities in the company and in the name of the capitalist warmongering adults they despise.

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While the youth are out racing on the highway, rear-ending other people’s cars, partying, stealing and killing (and trying to reenact Gun Crazy), Florence keeps wandering, but she and the trapped Julien are by no means the boring couple. Knowing that Julien is a decorated former paratrooper makes his time in the elevator that much more suspenseful. He’s cool, resourceful and capable of escaping, but what does that matter when bad luck and random timing foil his best attempt. It hardly matters when or even if he gets out, since he’ll be tied to a crime either way. It’s this O. Henry dilemma combined with the noir randomness and pessimism that makes the unbelievable twists (like the Germans inviting the youth to party after a clearly aggressive fender bender) not only acceptable but part of a gripping, surreal weekend.

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14 thoughts on “Elevator to the Gallows (1958)”

  1. It’s been years and years since I’ve seen this movie, but I remember the small mistakes/incidents you mentioned that quickly add up. Such a clever plot – the getting stuck in the elevator is such an ordinary event, but really adds to the tension. Time to see this again! Thanks!

    1. It seems like such a dumb thing, just like real life, the dumbest things happen at the worst times. And of all the days to have people steal your car and go on a crime spree! But part of the hubris of thinking you have done the perfect crime. Great tension. Thank you!

    1. Well at least you have an idea hoe it ends 🙂 not well. Plan to add 5 minutes to each scheduled recording and then pray your plans do not go like Julien’s in this movie. Thanks!

  2. Good lord, what an absolutely cool noir story! My friend had watched and thumbnail-reviewed this years ago, but I never paid it any attention to it; now, I’m going to. Have you ever had anyone read one of your reviews and immediately buy the movie? Well, I just did! Being a fan of noir, this will be a great addition to my collection, especially with it being a Criterion release. Thanks, Kristina, for a well-done post! (Although, this also means I just dropped $22…maybe I shouldn’t be TOO grateful!).

    1. That’s cool, I hope you like it, you can certainly trust Criterion’s taste if not mine. It is a different tone than Hollywood noir obviously, a little more navel-gazing, but fits right in I think, with the dread and just watching everything slide downhill despite the best laid plans. Thanks!

  3. Not a fan of foreign films but I did see this a while back. It has much more of the chaotic symbolism and nonlinear storyline that I think Americans find less appealing. It was interesting to me but not really much more than that.

    Tam

    1. Right, not everything appeals the same, it has a more art film feel and maybe slower too for some, I found it interesting that here you get the jazz score that so many people associate with noir but really isn’t present until late in the genre. Thank you!

  4. Nice post on what really is a great film. I remember being absolutely hooked the first time I saw this and on seeing it a second/third time I appreciated it all the more. One of those stories where everything that can go wrong does go wrong and it makes for an absolutely gripping story. Really must think about watching this one again soon.

    1. The way things go wrong you almost have to laugh, it just doesn’t let up. And the catch 22 of having a perfect alibi that you can’t use since it traps you for another murder, is just diabolical poetic justice. Really sticks with you and good for rewatching. Thanks!

  5. This was a really exciting time in movies, specifically in this case, French ones. It’s a film I have deep affection for, Louis Malle’s very first and he had an interesting career, long and impressive.

    I watched it again last year and for anyone who bought the Criterion or is thinking of doing so I will say it’s worth it for the many extras, all fascinating, as well as the great transfer of the film one will expect.

    What really lifts it most for me, on top of all its other qualities, is the Miles Davis score. This was improvised in one session–it’s beautiful and deeply attuned to the movie. It speaks to Malle’s adventurousness as well as his love of jazz (evident in other of his movies too) that he had this idea that so suited the film.

    For those who like the score enough to hear it on its own, the album “Jazz Track” is half given to it (the first side on the original LP), and the second side with Davis’ sextet–the same one heard on “Kind of Blue” a year later–is even better!

    OK, I’m a Miles fan obviously. Along with movies, jazz is one of my great loves.

    Good piece, insights into the movie and evoked something of its mood too.

    1. It’s one of those movies I wish I had more time to study and refine what I wrote (beyond my initial thoughts, post-a-day format), but I will be studying it, because there was much to absorb and think about: the genre twist, the acting, the technique etc. Miles’ score being improv is fascinating because as you say, it fit so perfectly and made that evening and the movie so memorable and atmospheric. Thanks so much!

  6. This is a superb film: intelligently conceived, perfectly cast, edited with an eye to dramatic effect – and unobtrusively directed.

    Jeanne Moreau is mesmeric.

    1. Agree with all that, and she was great, it’s a challenge to be riveting while wandering and carrying on an internal monologue (i’d imagine 🙂 ) but she did it. Thanks.

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