Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Film Review--Elevator to the Gallows

At once awash with Noir sensibilities and New Wave realism, Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (1957) is an astounding debut film from Louis Malle (at 24 years old!) that splits two, not so disparate, styles while one was ending and the other beginning.

The story is pure Noir. Retired paratrooper turned businessman Julien, (Maurice Ronet) who kills his boss at the behest of his lover, Florence (Jeanne Moreau) for reasons unknown. He is to meet her in 30 minutes but, upon his escape, professional as he may be, he leaves a precious piece of evidence at the scene, and must abandon his still-running car to retrieve it. On his way, he must make a vital choice: ride the elevator or take the stairs. He takes a ride and gets stuck. In the meantime, a roughneck and his wannabe debutante girlfriend steal the car and go on a joyride that leads to tragedy. Through all of this, Florence is left waiting at a cafĂ© in hopes that she won’t be abandoned, but the frustration takes its toll and she begins a desperate search. All the elements of noir are here: the inability to leave the city, desperate people hoping beyond hope to leave their dull and frustrating lives, murder, adultery, the whole bit.

The dark mood of Noir is accented by the distinct sense of existential crises: ennui, isolation, and loss abound and this, combined with cinematic realism, which helped to usher in the New Wave in France a couple of years later. The sheer desperation of these characters (except, that is, for the stone-faced Julien, although his isolation is the most overpowering, in an elevator car and all) is astonishing, and it takes the elements of Noir over the top. There is nothing good that comes from anything any of these characters do; at every step, they just make their lives worse. Their only solace is with their lovers, but one set never meet and the other is so dysfunctional and silly it’s almost repulsive, so solace never comes and life continues with or without them.

What puts this over the top for me is an amazing, amazingly effective, improvised score from Miles Davis. I hadn’t previously heard of this recording and was thrilled to see his name on the credits. I know none of the people he works with on the score off-hand, but they all do a fantastic and subtle job carrying much of the emotion, especially for the icy Moreau who, between her staring eyes, her gait, and the music, fully represents the struggle of the upper class matron, muzzled by society, who is only defined by her “important” husband and who wants nothing more but to escape, no matter if that means death.

Lyrical, atmospheric, and gorgeous, Elevator to the Gallows also moves quickly and the story, while there are some odd holes that make me feel like some important points were excised from the script and it could stand to be 10-15 minutes longer, feels very natural and organic. This is one of the points of New Wave: a story, no matter how twisty, that feels ultimately like something you should be able to look out your window to see. That is what we have here, voyeuristically observing the self-destruction of four people and two relationships all based in the method and sensibility of a stalwart (if nearly dead) American structure.