Despite its fatalistic title, Louis Malle’s splendid 1958 Parisian noir Elevator to the Gallows still marks an ascent to immortality six decades later, especially for a then-24-year-old French auteur making his confident feature debut and the only genre exercise of his career.
Yet the film also launched its ever-elegant star Jeanne Moreau, unforgettably shot by Henri Decaë and lit by the lamps and storefront windows along the Champs-Élysées. The cherry on top is the smoky, melancholic score by jazz titan Miles Davis and crew, recorded in a single session just two years before he would drop Kind of Blue.
Newly restored, the film’s alchemic blend of Bressonian rigor, Hitchcockian suspense, and overall proto–Nouvelle Vague cool more than compensates for its straightforward plotting, based on a trifling policier by Noël Calef. Moreau’s illicit lover (Maurice Ronet), having just staged the murder of her businessman husband (and his boss) as a suicide, circles back to the scene of the crime to dispose of leftover evidence before finding himself trapped in a you-know-what. Meanwhile, a teen hoodlum (Georges Poujouly) and his lover (Yori Bertin) steal the killer’s car and his identity (an Algerian war veteran!), and the ill-fated fallout from everyone’s misdeeds plays out as stylish screen poetry.
Though hardly as humanistic or naturalistic as Malle’s later work, it’s undeniably crackling entertainment that’ll have you reaching for a pack of Gauloises.
Elevator to the Gallows
Directed by Louis Malle
Opens August 3, Film Forum