Elevator to the Gallows (1957)

by | Apr 23, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Elevator to the Gallows (1957)

Director: Louis Malle
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet
Original Score: Miles Davis
Studio: Janus Films/Criterion Collection 335 (2 discs)
Video: 1.66:1 enhanced for 16:9 widescreen, B&W
Audio: DD mono, French
Subtitles: English (new translation)
Extras: Theatrical trailers; new interview with Jeanne Moreau, Archival interviews with Malle, Moreau, Ronet, pianist Rene Urtreger; Miles and Malle during the soundtrack recording session; New discussion of the score by Miles with jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis and critic Gary Giddins; Malle’s film school short Crazeologie; Illustrated booklet with essay by Terrence Rafferty, another interview with Malle, and a tribute from film producer Vincent Malle
Length: 92 minutes
Rating: *****

What a terrific debut feature film this was for the young French director, made when he was only 24, and as he says in two of the interviews in the extras, when so far he “had only directed fish.”  That comment referred to his first experience of having worked with Jacques Costeau doing the underwater feature Silent World. Malle was lucky to get the pouty beauty Moreau and perhaps even luckier to get Miles Davis to agree to improvise an original score for the film.  Miles was playing around Paris but some dates fell thru and his manager told him this young man who was a big jazz fan wanted him to do music for his finished film.  (The short Malle did as a student ended with someone playing over and over a recording of Charlie Parker playing Crazeologie.)  Malle just ran the film twice for Miles and then started recording the improvisations.  While the band was really a quintet, much of the score is just Miles muted trumpet and drummer Kenny Clarke. There is really only about 20 minutes of music in the film, but it elevates the story, the chilly suspense and the nighttime mood of Paris to the highest degree.

A major part of the film consists of Jeanne Moreau wandering the Champs Elysee and other streets searching for her lover, who is stuck in an elevator after killing his boss who is profiting from the Algerian War. The murdered man is also the Moreau character’s husband. The riveting and intricate plot concerns how the carefully planned crime goes horribly awry. A pair of devil-may-care young people steal the trapped man’s convertible and get themselves into tragic and extreme mischief. The story seems to have a cool and hip inevitability, and Miles’ music points it up beautifully.

The image quality and sound are excellent – as expected from Criterion. The Paris lab originally returned the first footage Malle shot at night on the streets, saying it was completely black and had to be reshot.  The main lighting was from the store windows and Moreau wore no makeup. Malle was ahead of the entire New Wave movement in many aspects of this film. One can spend a lot of time with all the extras but for most they will be worthwhile. The session pianist with Miles stresses the point that he didn’t get to play much on the soundtrack because it was often just Miles and his horn without the other players.  Jeanne Moreau had been mainly working in theater and in some B-movies before Elevator, and in the interview filmed at Cannes she says that working with Malle gave her a whole new appreciation for cinema and its special qualities. And Malle’s student film is fun and certainly better-made than most director’s student films included in some other extras.

 – John Sunier

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