The only exposure I had with Mr. Louis Malle was his last film in 1994, the experimental Vanya at 42nd street. A stark contrast to his first full feature noir film in 1957, Elevator to the Gallows (Original title: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud ) “I was split between my tremendous admiration for Robert Bresson and the temptation to make a Hitchcock-like film,” was how director Louis Malle described his debut feature, made when he was just 24. In fact the film stands at a stylistic crossroads between the French cinema of the classic period and the new wave films that were about to usher in a new mode of expression a year later.
Louis Marie Malle (French last name pronounced “mal”; 30 October 1932 – 23 November 1995) was a French director, screenwriter and producer. He worked as the co-director and cameraman to Jacques Cousteau on the Oscar and Palme d’Or- winning (at the 1956 Academy Awards and Cannes Film Festival respectively) documentary The Silent World (1956) and assisted Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped (French title: Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut, 1956) before making his first feature, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (released in the U.K. as Lift to the Scaffold and in the U.S. originally as Frantic, later as Elevator to the Gallows) in 1957.
Having had participated this past summer in the Turner Classic Movies sponsored Canvas Network On-line course from Ball State University, “Into The Darkness: Investigating Film Noir” , I gained more appreciation and deeper understanding for the genre and for this particular film the relationship between film noir and jazz. It was amazing to know that the great Miles Davis improvised the musical score of the film after watching scenes from the film and provided more layers to Malle’s visual design. To quote Professor Richard Edwards from one of his Daily Dose of Darkness lectures, “Although Davis’ music was for a French film that was not strictly a film noir, in that it did not exist within the established American series of films, this score has often been cited as an example of the relationship between the idioms of jazz and film noir.”
The excellent score by Miles Davis (a soundtrack worth picking up, jazz aficionado or not) heightens the unpredictability of the plot with freeform jazz and grooves while, at its core, provides one of cinema’s most pensive musical themes: a majestically remote trumpet.
CLASSIC OPENING SCENE
The classic opening scene engages the viewer right away with close-ups of a couple obviously in love and professing their devotion to each other. Within the first minute of the film, we already have an idea about the plan of our femme fatale Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and her flawed lover former French Foreign Legion paratrooper Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) to kill her husband Simon Carala (Jean Wall), a wealthy middle-aged industrialist and arms dealer who also happens to be Julien’s boss. After their conversation ended, the classic haunting music of Davis and his quintet then permeates and sets the mood for the film creating a sense of separation and longing between the two lovers. Davis’ lonely mournful tones on his trumpet echo the heartbreak of Julien in his work tower and Florence’s isolation in the phone booth. The panning of Julien from his office window out into the business world of tall buildings emphasizes the physical distance between Florence and him. The whispered voice of Florence shows her anguish in longing to be with Julien. Davis’s quintet captures the desperation of these lovers across the distance. “So close yet so far.”
After Julien seemed to have committed the perfect crime and a step closer to the lovers’ dream escape, he uncharacteristically realized that he left evidence behind. He hurriedly gets back in the building leaving his coat and belongings including the murder weapon in his car. As it was getting dark and close to closing time he gets trapped in the elevator after power was shut down for the day. This left Florence hanging and waiting in vain for him to show up and eventually convinced herself that her lover deserted her.
Meanwhile, as Julien struggles to free himself from the elevator. His parked car is stolen by a teenage couple — the braggart Louis (George Poujouly) and his girlfriend Veronique (Yori Bertin). They get into a fender-bender with a German tourist and his wife, and the tourists rather improbably invite them to party with them at a motel.
What occurs next are chain of events that led to several parallel crimes, mistaken identities involving the young reckless couple, a tightly wound double murder investigation, and some classic noir night shots with the mesmerizing jazz music during those scenes. These crimes were not committed in a vacuum. In this case, murder has a ripple effect, and the fates of the characters were inescapable and unfolding over one seemingly endless Parisian night.
Will the lovers find a way out of their predicament and consummate their rendezvous or face the consequence of their actions.
“Together forever somewhere!”
MILES DAVIS IMPROVISING THE MUSICAL SCORE OF THE FILM
Mr.Miles Davis and Ms. Jeanne Moreau
MOVIE SOUNDTRACK LP Cover
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS TRAILER
MOVIE POSTERS for Elevator to the Gallows
This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy and Silver Screenings.