“I love you!” pant the first of two very different couples who traverse the romantic, suspenseful terrain of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. As Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet) whisper into the telephone, it becomes clear that someone stands in the way of their consuming passion. Florence tearfully vows to meet Julien once he has dispatched her husband, who is also his employer. After the murder, Julien realizes he has left behind some incriminating evidence and returns to the scene of the crime, foolishly leaving his convertible idling on the street during his search. Enter couple two, Louis (Georges Poujouly), a rebel looking for a cause, and his girlfriend, Veronique (Yori Berton). They slip into Julien’s car, and when Julien fails to promptly return — after getting stuck in the building’s elevator — they take off. Florence, glimpsing Veronique in Julien’s passing car, thinks her lover has deceived her.
Elevator to the Gallows was Malle’s first feature film, and he was determined to make a picture that showed postwar Paris as it really was. He wanted to hint at what he felt the city was becoming: more commercialized, less sympathetic and more American. Impressed by cinematographer Henri Decaë’s crisp work in documentaries and his stark, noirish images in Bob le Flambeur, Malle hired him to photograph Gallows. Using newer, faster monochrome negatives, Decaë was able to give Elevator crisp daytime sequences and realistic urban nights. It was Decaë who insisted Moreau wear very little makeup; he believed the available street light would bring out her strong facial features in night sequences. Other filmmakers had frowned upon Moreau’s bone structure and deemed her face “too complicated” for film, and she had previously worked in only a handful of pictures. Malle and Moreau have both credited Decaë with being directly responsible for the stardom Moreau found after Gallows. Decaë later collaborated with Malle on four more pictures.
The Criterion Collection recently released an extraordinarily good two-disc DVD of Elevator to the Gallows. The picture transfer, which appears to be from the 2005 restoration that led to a theatrical re-release, is stunning, offering ultra-crisp resolution and sharp contrast. The audio track, clean and fully pronounced in its original monaural state, is also excellent, giving life to Miles Davis’ landmark score, one of the film’s most famous elements.
The package’s well-produced supplements begin on disc one with trailers for the film’s original theatrical release and its recent re-release. Disc two begins with a 17-minute excerpt from a 1975 Canadian television interview with Malle. Next is an excellent 18-minute interview with Moreau (taped in 2005), who gives substantial insight into the making of the picture. Also featured are a joint interview with Moreau and Malle from the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and a brief bit from French TV circa 1957 that spotlights actor Ronet.
Fans of Miles Davis will be thrilled with a supplement devoted to the film’s score. It’s divided into three sections: the first comprises six minutes of footage filmed on the legendary night of Davis’ improvisation; the second, “On Piano, Rene Urtreger,” is a 15-minute interview with the only surviving musician involved in the scoring session; and in the third, Village Voice music critic Gary Giddins and horn player Jon Faddis offer a solid portrait of Davis and the pivotal role Elevator played in his career. This informative, 25-minute piece underscores the unique chemistry in the collaboration of the filmmaker and musician.
For many, Elevator to the Gallows signaled the birth of the French New Wave. Shortly after the film’s release, many of the directors associated with the movement, including Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, made their first films. But regardless of how Elevator is categorized, it remains a high note in the history of French cinema. Paired with the wistful sound of Davis’ horn, Decaë’s shots of Moreau’s iconic face as she walks along rainswept Paris streets are among the lushest and most evocative moments in modern cinema. This truly excellent presentation of Elevator to the Gallows is not to be missed.