Elevator to the Gallows

“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
when first we practice to deceive.”

That quote kept turning over in my mind as I watched the great Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, a film where every character is guilty of murder, and each of them is unaware they have an iron-clad alibi. It also happens to be one of the most stylish examples of 50’s French noir I’ve seen.

Florence and Julien (Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet) are lovers, fresh off plotting the murder of Florence’s husband, Simon, the chairman of a powerful oil conglomerate. The plan goes off almost without a hitch, as Julien shoots Simon, makes it look like suicide, and then creates an impenetrable locked-room mystery. Julien realizes he has left behind a critical piece of evidence, goes back to retrieve it, and gets stuck in an elevator. Florence, believing Julien has forsaken her, wanders the streets at night, forlorn, rain hammering down on her. She looks in cafe windows and watches young lovers canoodle over coffee, as solemn jazz music plays on the soundtrack. As I said, perfect French noir.

I’ll go a little further, however cautiously: A young thug and his flighty girlfriend steal Julien’s car, which has been left running at the curb. This is Veronique and Louis (Yori Bertin and Georges Poujouly), who will soon become embroiled in the drama: They discover evidence of murder in the car–Julien’s raincoat, the gun, a miniature camera, and a top-secret document–though they don’t put together the pieces. They take Julien’s reservation at an out-of-town motel. Under false identity, they meet a wealthy German couple. Louis attempts to steal the couple’s Merecedes and is discovered in the act.

Stop! Are you with me so far? I hope so, because I can’t really say much more, except that how this mystery plays out, and how alibis are forged, exploited, and ultimately destroyed, is part of the intrigue and fun of Malle’s film. Each thread is followed through to implacable conclusion; precise observations are made about each character, who they are, where they are, and why they are there. Statements are made–such as Florence to the police, after she is picked up for being on the streets without her papers. Has she inadvertently given Julien away? Or has she solidified his alibi? She wouldn’t know, of course: Julien has been locked up in that damned elevator. And what about Louis and Veronique? They hold clues and resolution, too, though they are both too young and naive to realize it. Having committed their own crimes, they crumble under the weight of guilt, and the manner in which they choose to deal with their situation would not be considered unreasonable.

Malle was a director of clear and abundant gifts. Here, he creates one of the most air-tight–and thrilling–suspense films I’ve seen; thirty years later, he would make Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), a compelling drama about a French boys’ school during the Nazi occupation. No two films could be more different, yet Malle handled them both with the ease and assurance of a master.

And if you want to see an even more diverse film, check out Malle’s surrealist fantasy, Black Moon (1975). Now that’s a movie to leave you scratching your head.

1958; starring Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet; directed by Louis Malle; 88 min; not rated; in French w/ English subtitles; available on Criterion.