Louis Malle doesn’t exactly fit in with the French New Wave. Malle was never a critic, wasn’t close to François Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard, was never under the tutelage of Andre Bazin. His path was the more traditional apprenticeship and crewing on other film projects. His technical experience is evident in his first film, Elevator to the Gallows (1958). At the same time the moody, noir atmosphere and romantic tragedy of the film make it a stylish kindred spirit to Breathless (1960) or Shoot the Piano Player (1960).
The film follows two attempted getaways by two passionate couples. Monsieur Tavernier wants to abscond with his boss’ wife (played by a young Jeanne Moreau) but in his haste he leaves his car running which is in turn ‘borrowed’ by two local teens. The youthful joyride leads into accidental escalating violence and Tavernier’s plot traps him in a non-functioning elevator, the symbolic cell for all concerned. The children play at a dangerous adult world while the older couple tries to flee from the same. Both couples end undone by impulsiveness. Malle blends these elements with a lovelorn Moreau wandering Paris all night. The pacing of this story is far more taut and noir-inspired than the Cahiers du Cinema crowd ever achieved. Elevator to the Gallows shares a great deal more with the ‘nascent wave’ streets of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955). What at the time were stark ideological distinctions between these artists have faded as all attempt to revitalize French cinema with American b-movie fare. Dassin was, in fact, an American fleeing McCarthy’s stranglehold on culture, but his camera feels almost more at home in Paris than New York.
The truly remarkable aspect of Malle’s first film is the unorthodox musical score. Malle enticed Miles Davis to join a Parisian combo to create an entirely improvised accompaniment. The resulting music is loose and energetic but also hauntingly solitary. Many credit this experiment as the beginning of Miles’ focus on modal composition, which reached full realization and an apex for American music on 1959’s Kind of Blue. Elements of the mournful, evocative lines of “Flamenco Sketches” trace back to cues from Elevator to the Gallows. So in one debut film, Louis Malle made a star of Jeanne Moreau and set the stage for Kind of Blue, essentially defining hip for the next decade.
Elevator to the Gallows
dir. Louis Malle
Screens @ the MFA (auditorium 161) Nov 25-27 – click here for tickets and showtimes
part of the Rescued and Restored showcase