Elevator to the Gallows


“I’ll be waiting. Waiting only for you.”

And so the enigmatic, and yet decidedly pellucid, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) goes. She barely emotes these words into the cold receiver of a telephone. Here is an expression that rocks against the side of some intangible and dedicated fervor. If there is empathy or a sliver of guilt in her subconscious, it has long submerged into the recesses of her pupils. On the other end of the line Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) fields the call. Wrapped in a psychological straitjacket of lovelorn duty, he conducts himself with unflappable commitment. Like an issue of EC Comics Crime SuspenStories, French master Louis Malle sets the tense, muscle-constricting gears in motion. A smoldering affair leads to Florence’s husband, Simon, on the receiving end of a few lead parcels. The use of sound – in one scene a whirring pencil sharpener masks the abhorrent noise of some particularly macabre happenings – is exquisitely clever. And, visually, Malle knows how to film hands. Only Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket”, a title that would be released one year later, would be its cinematic equivalent.

When Julien disappears, Florence begins to wander the streets with purpose and authority. What happened to him? Why hasn’t he updated me on my husband’s whereabouts? She walks into oncoming traffic with a sort of aloof invincibility. The rage of curiosity is strong, unperturbed. Florence drives her shoulders forward as she walks, as if to check an invisible skater into unseen boards. Jeanne Moreau delivers a seismic performance that radiates with monomania. Here is an actress that commands the audience with every minute tic, every disengaged glance. There’s an overheating battery at work in her character’s head, and we’re here to experience every volatile moment.

Meanwhile, a young couple (Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin) find themselves in a cerebral dance of wit and violence. Making off with Julien’s unguarded car, the naive duo embark on a joyride as Miles Davis’s hurried, ecstatic, and anxiety-stricken jazz waffles over the film. Shadows climb and descend, slash and hover. The direction, here, is reminiscent of Robert Aldrich’s sensationally weird “Kiss Me Deadly”, an American noir film released in 1955.

While “Elevator to the Gallows” is an expertly crafted suspense film, Malle superimposes wry flecks dark humor that, some decades later, the Coen brothers would employ in their respective pictures. How many bad things can happen to one bad guy, really? Newly restored by Rialto, this 1958 classic is opening today at Landmark’s Ken Cinema alongside Carol Reed’s visionary “The Fallen Idol“. Come for the the dark side of humanity and stay for the Eric Rohmer-like croissant eating.


Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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