Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows is stunning and seductive enough as any film, let along as the director’s first full length feature. Elevator to the Gallows is arguably the film in his oeuvre with the most quotable title, next to Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987), and to further praise Malle, belongs to the triptych of his finest films, along with his second, The Lovers (1958) and third, Zazie dans le metro (1960).
It begins an irrepresibly sensual piece of dialogue, the camera fading in on Jeanne Moreau’s eyes as the rest of her face is blackened by shadow. The overbearing cloud clears and as its shadow lifts, her face is revealed. “I can’t take it any more,” she says, and we wonder what she can’t bear: the intense pleasure of love or the pain of separation? The residue of tears drawn under her eyes could be the result of either emotion. The camera pans out and she is on the telephone, and her lover, Maurice Ronet, tells her he loves her in the most romantic of ways. “Without the sound of your voice I’d be lost in a land of silence.” Then he continues, “Love isn’t brave,” excusing his desperate behaviour as her lover and at the same time, in a terrifying irony, defining this most natural, primal and uncontrollable things as one of the hardest and most unbearable to live with.
As the scene is set for Julien Tavernier (Ronet) to murder his lover’s husband Simon Carala (Jean Wall), Malle orchestrates a dual scene in which the two men occupy a large room, and a secretary sits in the outer office space. Tavernier holds a gun to Carala’s head but we don’t know when he will shoot; he has the upper hand, he is deliberating; but when the camera cuts to the secretary sharpening pencils and blocking out any external sound with the deafening drone of the sharpener, we know that the trigger has been pulled. A great sonic trick. Malle never lets us know that Tavernier is a murderer; he is only victimised, by his employer, the young couple who steal his car, the public who perceive him as a criminal, and the police who refuse to hear his story.
Directed by Malle’s vibrant, enthusiastic eye, Henri Decae’s camera takes us on a journey where we really belong, even if our common sense might suggest better advice. This is a gritty film that, in spite of and also no doubt because of, its grittiness, is a seductive invitation into a love affair and a musing on the romanticism of France. Romanticism is interesting – the lovers still get punished for plotting and executing murder, or at least, we are directed to think that they will. But through most of the film, Moreau’s Florence is searching for her lover, suspecting him of betrayal yet still in love, wanting to believe in him with little evidence to support her love. Is it France that keeps her going? Is it herself, her own belief in love?
Florence is quick to doubt her faith, with her anxieties of desertion and betrayal unfortunately dictating her life. I don’t think this is melodramatic; I can entirely relate to it. And after an evening wandering the city, asking anybody she can for details of Tavernier’s whereabouts, she is finally convinced of his innocence, of his faithfulness to her. Told by the police that they will be separated for years, as she will be sent to prison, the film, she finally says, “No more ageing, no more days. I’ll go to sleep…I’ll wake up alone…I’ll be old from now on.” Words not of regret but of desolate resolve. Eminently quotable, this film is, in fact, eminently cool.
Even with Malle’s direction and Moreau’s love-infused performance, it’s Davis’ sultry, electrifyingly soporific score that makes the film. The stuff of legend, Miles Davis improvised the score to the film while watching it, and Malle was completely aware of its ephemeral beauty as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strike soundtrack gold. During a particularly famous sequence that extends over three minutes, Moreau watches a bartender pour a row of martinis then proceeds to walk the streets as only she can, like the Jeanne Moreau that we all love. If only she could keep walking forever. In fact, she might still be walking–someone hand her Miles Davis on an iPod.