Elevator to the Gallows: Glamorous Fatalism

While attempting to define noir we come to realize that almost all of the films of the genre share some universal similarities, and we list classic components such as the suspense, the crime, the cheesy and witty dialogue, etc. This attempt at a definition is quickly put together and is abandoned even quicker. Noir is so much more than a few systematic classifications; it is too broad and too diverse to be confined to a one paragraph definition. We may argue about the origin of the phenomenon of noir, and indeed we have been doing exactly that for decades, with some listing John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the first film noir, and some disagreeing and giving the credit to earlier titles such as The Man on the Third Floor (1940) or The Roaring Twenties (1939), but here I will disregard the whole debate entirely and attempt to discuss a more defining era for the genre and that is the few months or years that proceeded WWII. Film noir was originally described as thriller and mystery melodramas, but the term was coined by French audiences after they got to watch the films made in the first half of the forties after the war. Noir was what they noticed, and noir was what they called it, primarily due to the dim lighting these films are infamous for, courtesy of the low budgets film noir had because of World War 2. This bit of information may be common knowledge for some, and a new but unnecessary revelation for others, but nonetheless, it serves a very specific purpose here. Film noir is usually thought of as an entirely American phenomenon, but by specifying the roots of genre and its name, we now expand our perception of it and accept a large array of world films as noir. The subject of this article is Louis Malle’s 1958 masterpiece Elevator to the Gallows, starring legendary actress Jeanne Moreau, and with a score by none other than Jazz icon Miles Davis.

Elevator to the Gallows (French: Ascenseur pour l'Ć©chafaud) tells two separate stories that get tangled up together and end in the same fate, the gallows. Florence Carala and Julien Tavernier are secret lovers who plot the perfect murder of Florence’s husband, a wealthy businessman who also happens to be Julien’s boss. Their plan begins to unravel when Julien gets stuck in an elevator, while a young couple, small-time crook Louis and his sweetheart Veronique, steal his car, and register in a motel under his name only to be caught in a whirlwind of misfortune hours later under a fake name.

Elevator to the Gallows takes the mystery and suspense of film noir and turns it up to 11. Its plot is intricate, always full of surprises and never stale. It advances at an exhilaratingly fast pace, and even when it slows down to perfectly capture angst and fatalism, it is still as exciting as ever. Film noir is usually described as the cinema of paranoia, and Elevator to the Gallows is a perfect embodiment of that. It is basically the story of four star-crossed lovers who are set either for prison or the gallows. Death lurks at every corner, and this combination of extreme paranoia and deadly fatalism is captured masterfully in the film. The camera work by Henri Decaƫ, the incredible score by Miles Davis and also the surprising and generous use of silence in the film create a film of deep discomfort and foreboding.

Speaking of the score, which I’ve listened to dozens of times and loved immensely even before watching the film, it is almost a crime not to talk about its genius. It is inconceivable for me how Miles Davis and a few other musicians improvised the whole score while watching a screening of the film for the first time. Miles Davis, the man behind classic albums such as Kind of Blue, In a Silent Way and Blue Haze delivers an amazing soundtrack here that perfectly captures the fatalism and twisted romance of the film. But even while having one of Jazz’s greats at his disposal, Louis Malle utilizes the score sparingly and very often opts for nothing but silence and vague sounds of footsteps and heartbeats. It is exhilarating, frightening and freaking genius.

It is imperative here to discuss Elevator to the Gallows not only as a noir, but as a film from French cinema, and from the Nouvelle Vague. I often feel that what Romanticism did for literature in the 18th century, the French New Wave did for cinema in the 1960’s. It emphasized focus not only on the emotions  the characters feel, but also on how they display them. Elevator to the Gallows is a very emotional film and manages to implement two very human and touching story in the middle of a storm of crimes and misdemeanors. As Florence roams the streets of Paris searching for Julien, we are witnesses not only to her visible anguish and worry through the brilliant use of close-ups that remind one of Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962), but we are also treated to her thoughts through lengthy interior monologues that are reflective, poetic and emotional. The film’s fatalistic romanticism reaches a devastating climax with an attempt at a double suicide in hopes of escape and immortality. “They’ll tell our story, we’ll be famous.”

Elevator to the Gallows is often praised as one of the best films noir has to offer, and I hereby confirm the buildup. It is exciting, human and very touching. A thrill ride, a tear-jerker and a very fun time. Noir at its finest.


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