“A 24-hour Racinian tragedy: The crime was committed at night, the murderer was identified in the morning, and he shall be captured this evening at the latest.” Such are the words used by a pompous substitute magistrate to describe the criminal case he thinks he has all figured out. The tragic irony comes of course from the fact that the man he has pegged as the murderer is in fact innocent of this particular crime but guilty of another one nobody knows took place, but there’s also an unwitting dose of truth to his words that makes them doubly ironic: Elevator To The Gallows is indeed, like so many noir films revolving around murder and forbidden passion, a 24-hour tragedy; one whose plot’s reliance on its characters making the worst possible decisions at the worst possible moments turns it into a tragicomedy.
None of these decisions are forced or arbitrary, they are all consistent with the traits of those responsible: The meticulous murderer who forgot to take the grappling hook off the balcony panicked at the unexpected phone call and naturally thought taking the elevator would be faster and more discreet; every mistake the impulsive teenage delinquent makes is an attempt to emulate adult behaviour most likely learned from the movies; as for the murderer’s lover, well, how was she to know they’d used his camera? It’s the kind of moments of credible stupidity that the Coen brothers thrive on.
On paper, Elevator To The Gallows looks like a collection of noir situations: A murder plot committed by the victim’s coworker who is also his wife’s lover; two teenage outlaw lovers driving a stolen car and stopping at a motel; a man trapped in an enclosed space and powerless to stop the unfolding of tragic events… But from the very first shot, a memorable extreme close-up of Jeanne Moreau’s lost and anguished face as she repeatedly declares her love for her husband’s future murderer over the telephone, Louis Malle makes his intent clear: To look at familiar scenarios from unfamiliar perspectives.
Such unfamiliar perspectives include subverting the expectations of suspense generated by the murderer’s predicament (trapped in an elevator after hours while his car is stolen and his lover is looking for him all over Paris) by concentrating relatively little attention on his attempts to get out, which end halfway through the film. The consequently greater amount of time spent on his lover’s fruitless search for him and the teenagers misusing his property brings to surface the social critiques that so often lurk at the surface of classic noirs: The respectable CEO’s wife spends the night walking the streets while her inner monologue melodramatically rationalizes his “betrayal” and “cowardice” into something noble and romantic, so lost in thought and so confident about her power that ending in the police station with drunks and prostitutes seems like a mere inconvenience.
Meanwhile, the kids’ use of the wealthy war vet’s identity and possessions to make friends with a couple of aging German tourists before carelessly killing them, aside from recalling the adolescent roleplaying from Nicholas Ray’s classics They Live By Night and Rebel Without a Cause, functions as a critique of post-WWII youth entitlement and privilege that, in light of the May 68 movement that would occur ten years later, feel eerily prescient from a reactionary point of view1. Indeed modern French Gaullist viewers doubtlessly find the toast to Europe shared by all parties but the boy as well as the German man’s evident delight in playing along with his pretense at being an Indochina veteran respectively chilling and cathartic.
In either case, the characters’ status is temporarily and, up to a point, voluntarily hidden. They hide from their crimes in plain sight, taking on the guise of a different social status; it is paper-thin and does not stand up to scrutiny, but in the brief amount of time that passes between transformation and return to reality, it’s a kind of relief for them.
An adaptation of Noël Calef’s novel of the same name, Elevator To The Gallows was Louis Malle’s first feature-length work of fiction. He had previously worked as an assistant to Robert Bresson for A Man Escaped and the influence is quite distinct, if not overt: Scenes that most other filmmakers would shoot in order to generate suspense are downplayed just enough that tension remains without distracting from the curious beauty of the gestures and emotions contained within. The murderer’s infiltration of his victim’s floor via grappling hook, in particular, reads like a reversal of A Man Escaped’s climactic escape scene. It’s one of the many little touches through which Malle made Elevator To The Gallows a stepping stone on a new path for French crime dramas (or “polars” as we call them in France), perhaps the country’s most popular genre at the time and one that was threatening to grow stale from formula. Sadly, after decades of progress, the genre appears to have stalled once again. More’s the pity considering France’s increased social, political and religious fractures provide an abundance of material for films like Elevator To The Gallows.
1A point of view that I do not entirely share, even if I do acknowledge its excesses – support for genocidal authoritarian regimes such as Mao’s and Pol Pot’s being the most prominent.