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.
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.
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.