Retro Review: Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
To honor French cinema icon Jeanne Moreau’s passing, we look at her ground-breaking crime thriller, Elevator to the Gallows.
July was a tough month for fans of classic cinema. We lost several icons, from director George A. Romero to actor Martin Landau, and at the end of the month we lost the legendary Jeanne Moreau. While American audiences may be less familiar with her body of work, Moreau was instrumental in ushering in a new era of European film making. She rose to prominence for her role in Louis Malle’s drama, The Lovers, but it was her first collaboration with Malle in 1958’s Elevator to the Gallows that kicked off the French New Wave that influenced film makers such as Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch for generations to come.
Jean Moreau (1928-2017)
Moreau started her career on the stage at the age of 19, and was soon appearing in small roles in feature films by 1950. Her big break as a leading lady was in back to back performances under young director Louis Malle, with Elevator to the Gallows in 1958 and The Lovers in 1959. Moreau established herself as one of the biggest players in avant garde cinema, working with iconoclastic directors such as Malle, Francois Truffaut, Orson Welles and Elia Kazan.
She achieved international fame starring in Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim in 1962, and went on to work in films around the world. Moreau also worked behind the camera as a director, writer, and producer. In 1998 she was honored with a lifetime achievement tribute by the American Academy of Motion Pictures, and received the BAFTA Fellowship in 1996.
The New Wave.
Malle pioneered what would become the “Nouvelle Vague,” a style of film making that stood opposed to the glamorous style of Hollywood. New Wave would focus on unsavory characters filmed in natural lighting, relying on stark contrasts between shadows and light to paint a more realistic art style. The plots were often mundane by comparison to contemporary films, eschewing ostentation and plot driven stories in favor of existential narratives and dark themes of irony and cynicism. The camera was allowed to intrude on scenes via “filming in the round,” a cardinal sin according to Hollywood’s taboos. The New Wave intended to break up the story-book narratives and sentimentality of early cinema and replace it with realism and introspective themes.
Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
A woman waits in a cafe for her lover. A man commits a daring crime, only to become trapped in an elevator during his escape. A defiant young couple steal a car, discovering evidence of a crime, and wind up on the run from the police themselves. Seemingly abandoned, the woman wanders the street at night, searching for any clue to her lover’s whereabouts, while the police close in on them both.
Elevator to the Gallows puts a New Wave spin on a classic noir crime thriller. The actual crime and manhunt become secondary in importance to the internal conflicts of the protagonists. Tropes such as true love, youthful rebellion, and justice are viewed with a jaundiced eye: the film shows that they are trivial and absurd but not meaningless. It is the struggle to guide one’s life by those concepts that leads to disillusionment and regret. The actual results from high-minded ideals are tawdry and naive.
Style over Substance.
One of the criticisms of the crass blockbusters that have failed this summer, such as Valerian, is that they are all style and little substance. In the French New Wave, style was the substance. The camera approaches subjects in a voyeuristic manner and was considered obscene and aggressive by many at the time. Long tracking shots without dialogue follow Moreau as she wanders the city, or rests on her criminal lover as he simply waits in the elevator endlessly smoking cigarettes.
The sounds of the city and the natural lighting created by street lamps and flashing neon signs contrast with a highly artificial jazz soundtrack by the legendary Miles Davis. It all adds up to make the audience feel like clinical observers who are deliberately kept apart from the subject of their gaze. Instead of trying to immerse the viewer, New Wave makes a stark distinction between the audience and the objects they are viewing.
One reason this forced separation between observer and subject works so well in this film is because Moreau conveys so much through her actions and expressions. In one scene, she has despaired of finding her lover and moves through a crowded street and into traffic, oblivious to all around her. She doesn’t speak a word of dialogue, but you can read every emotion as she goes through denial, despair, and acceptance as if she were speaking out loud. It’s a breathtaking sequence and shows why Moreau became such a fixture of the movement.
Following the Leads.
Elevator to the Gallows is an excellent introduction to the work of Jeanne Moreau and New Wave cinema, but it is also a strong movie in its own right. It’s quite astounding that Louis Malle accomplished so much in his first film at only the age of 24. The disparate elements at first seem puzzling, and I wondered if it was a mistake for the film to linger so long on what appears to be a trivial sub-plot with the young couple who steal the car of the man trapped in the elevator. The final act of the film deftly weaves together all of the elements that had been up in the air and disjointed in a satisfying manner. That random and meaningless events all conspire to undo our characters lies at the heart of the film’s philosophy. Life is absurd, but in this film the absurdity is not crass or wasteful.