6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Top floor film noir from one of the greats,
This review is from: Criterion Coll: Elevator to the Gallows [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
This was Louis Malle's first. Previously he had worked with Jacques Cousteau on "The Silent World" (interestingly enough) and now tried his hand at film noir. Several things fell into place to make this debut a memorable one.
First, he was able to get Jeanne Moreau to play Florence Carala. She had previously been mostly a stage and B-movie player who was obviously very talented, but as Malle put it, not considered really photogenic. What she becomes after her performance here is a premier star of the French cinema partially because of the way she is photographed, and partly because she was so perfectly suited to the character, which I suspect she helped to create. She does a lot silently or with just a few words in the scenes where she walks the streets of Paris, frantic because her lover and fellow murder conspirator, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) has stood her up and she cannot understand what has happened.
Second, Malle's collaboration with screenwriter and novelist Roger Nimier adapting a roman thriller by Noel Calef to the screen turned out to be exactly right for the material, especially because they used mostly just the plot of the novel and expanded Moreau's role.
The third factor was the fortuitous jazz score by Miles Davis. Davis happened to be in Paris as the movie was being edited and Malle was able to talk him into doing a trumpet-centered original score, said to have been composed on the fly late one night and early the next morning as Moreau drank champagne and listened.
"Ascenseur pour l'echafaud," like so many American film noirs that it frankly resembles, is a murder done for love and money gone wrong. It is both a mistake by the murderer and fate itself that traps Julien Tavernier. But there is an intriguing complication in the person of young Louis (Georges Poujouly) who steals Julien's car and takes the flower girl (who admired the dashing Tavernier from afar) on an ill-fated joy ride. Unlike most of Malle's work to come, this is clearly a plot-driven, commercial flick (but oh, so exquisitely done!) without a hint of the usual autobiographical elements for which Malle is so well-known.
The Criterion Collection two disc set features interviews with Moreau, Malle and others, and includes Malle's student film, "Crazeologie," (after a Charlie Parker tune) a "theater of the absurd" little ditty about which I can only say I would never have guessed that Louis Malle was the auteur. "Elevator to the Gallows" itself is a beautifully restored high-definition black and white transfer with new and excellent subtitles. There is a booklet with an insightful review by Terrence Rafferty and part of a very interesting interview with Malle conducted by Philip French.
By the way, Malle was 24-years-old when he made this film and commented that he was very worried about his ability to work with actors since he had "spent four years" previously "filming fish"! (quoting from the Philip French interview). He gives Jeanne Moreau credit for being "incredibly helpful" until he lost his fear of actors.
So, see this for Jeanne Moreau, one of the legends of the French cinema, who displays here a kind of magnetic sexuality that had me thoroughly intrigued.