Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Brief thoughts on a French classic: Elevator to the Gallows

A nice companion piece to some of the great works of the French New Wave, Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud) is a very funny and very French film about one one of the all time great cinema staples: The perfect murder gone horribly wrong. 

The luminous Jeanne Moreau (shot without makeup and lit by harsh lights yet looking more beautiful than ever) and the chainsmoking-cool Maurice Ronet are the devious lovers planning to murder her husband, a despicable war-profiteer and a louse of a man. The murder goes off without a hitch in the first ten minutes of the film but then Ronet finds himself stuck in an elevator whilst escaping from the scene. Meanwhile his car is stolen by a couple of teenage rebels (Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin) and a case of mistaken identity leads to Ronet being charged with another murder (one he's actually innocent of). Moreau tries to maneuver exonerating her lover for one crime while keeping the cops clueless about his involvement in the murder he actually committed. 

The film is beautifully shot in deep B&W and is obviously greatly influenced by American film noir films, as were many of the great New Wave directors. Moreau and Ronet do a great job of portraying the kind of existentialist cool that became a staple of French films at the time. Poujouly and Bertin suffer greatly in comparison, their acting is dated and stilted while their characters are poor caricatures of the rebel-without-a-cause stereotype. The best thing about the film is the astounding score, improvised by Miles Davis after hanging out with Malle and Moreau in a cafe. Malle convinced Davis to gather some musicians and he recorded the score from 1 to 5 am that night whilst drinking several bottles of champagne. This is all the more astounding for the fact that the score harmonizes perfectly with the images, adding notes of both humor and tension to the film. Another enjoyable aspect of the film is its macabre humor, a precursor to the espresso-black mood of neo-noir such as the Coen Brother's Blood Simple and the films of John Dahl. 

Overall Ascenseur pour l'échafaud is a fine yet somewhat slight film, packed with beautiful images and great music. Primarily the film is enjoyable for its jazzy grooviness. The plot and characters are superficial at best but its hard to care about such details when watching Jeanne Moreau amble down dimly lit Parisian streets, cigarette dangling from her mouth, shot in ultra-cool black and white with Miles Davis playing horn on the soundtrack. 

Rating: Three glasses of Cabarnet and a pack of Lucky Strikes. 

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