The Sultry Moods and Cool Jazz of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows

From the opening shot of Louis Malle’s classic French thriller Elevator to the Gallows (1958), you know that you’re in for a treat. As the camera pulls back from that extreme close-up to reveal the face of Jeanne Moreau, we realize she is talking on the phone to her lover (Maurice Ronet), with whom she is conspiring to murder her husband (Jean Wall). This conversation is the closest that these paramours will ever get to being together during the film’s 88 minutes, for a little hitch in the murder plot sets in motion a series of events that will cause the undoing of Moreau, Ronet and a young couple (Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin).

Some careless mistakes by Ronet cause him to spend a sweaty, uncomfortable night in an elevator, unable to get to Moreau. There is a great sense of unease, the claustrophobic box enclosing Ronet and cutting him off from society like a prison. Ronet’s night in the lift gives young Poujouly and Bertin the opportunity to steal his car and commit crimes of their own, aided by Ronet’s own gun, which he put in the glove compartment.

In a series of memorable sequences, Moreau wanders the streets of Paris, her misery amplified by the jazzy score composed by Miles Davis. The film’s cinematographer, Henri Decaë, worked only with available light coming from streetlamps and storefront windows and he was able to film Moreau walking by placing the camera in a baby carriage.

Although Elevator to the Gallows is best remembered for promoting Jeanne Moreau to movie star status in France, perhaps the real star of the film is Henri Decaë’s photography. Light and shadows are captured beautifully, particularly during the tense nighttime scenes. As the story unfolds and we try to figure out the fates of these characters, Malle’s expert direction, Decaë’s stylish camerawork and Davis’s hip music make this film an essential.

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