Thursday 25 October 2007

Elevator to the Gallows (1957) Louis Malle

Celebrated French filmmaker Louis Malle started out making documentaries and reached huge success with them, winning both the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Academy Award for Best Documentary for his work on The Silent World, an undersea documentary made with Jacques Cousteau. This was his first non-documentary feature and it's a film noir, made in a year that may have been the biggest for cinema ever. The rest of the world was sending a challenge to Hollywood with films like The Seventh Seal, The Cranes are Flying, Paths of Glory and Wild Strawberries, and Hollywood was answering back with 12 Angry Men, Run of the Arrow and Witness for the Prosecution.

Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet are obviously very much in love, whispering sweet nothings into each other's ear across the phone lines. However they're also planning something and soon we find out what. Ronet's character, Julien Tavernier, kills his boss at the Consortium Carala and sets him up as a suicide in what appears to be a thoroughly well thought out operation. Moreau plays Florence, the boss's wife who he's running away with. Unfortunately he forgets one single detail and in going back to fix it ends up stuck in the lift and everything goes rapidly pear shaped from there.

In addition to directing, Louis Malle co-wrote the script and tells the story in a fascinating way. We find out more about Julien, for instance, from the young couple who steal his car than we do from him. It's also fascinating to see what seem like an awesomely thought out plan gradually unfurl not through the work of a cop or a detective but through cruel twists of fate and the unwitting actions of others. In fact if Julien and Florence are the bad guys, and the victim is a bad guy too, then the only good guy must be Destiny herself.

The acting is stunning. Jeanne Moreau especially wrings no end of emotion out of what would seem to a modern audience like nothing but wasted time. There are scenes of her merely walking along, lit only by shop windows and light from neon signs and backed by a jazz score by no less than Miles Davis, yet there's so much depth on her face and in her movement that it's a joy to see. It seems very strange for all the dialogue to go to the supporting characters, but that's how it works. There's seemingly no end to the mindless chatter of the two young thieves and a German couple they race in Tavernier's car, but Julien himself has a mostly silent role trying to escape from the lift and his lady love gets to wander around lost in contemplation.

This is the first of ten Louis Malle films being shown on TCM as a celebration of what would have been his 75th birthday. I haven't seen any of them but I've recorded them all. The two I have seen weren't that impressive, The French A Very Private Affair and the American Crackers were simply OK, but this one is a peach. Now I'm looking forward to the rest even more than before.

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