Louis Malle’s black-and-white noir Elevator to the Gallows, based on a novel by Noël Calef, opens with a close-up of the soulful eyes and, then, the spellbinding face of star Jeanne Moreau intoning “je t’aime, je t’aime” over the phone to her lover. It’s a perfect opening shot, not only because it encapsulates the film’s mood of doomed romanticism, but, more importantly, because the best thing going for Malle’s directorial debut is Moreau’s Florence Carala, a figure of forlorn longing who aimlessly wanders the Parisian night searching for the paramour whom she believes has abandoned her and their dreams of blissfully escaping her betrothed situation.
Moreau’s tremulous gait reflects her character’s precarious emotional instability. The actress’s bittersweet yearning pours forth from her exquisite countenance in waves, and Malle—working with Henri Decaë, Jean-Pierre Melville’s longtime cinematographer—captures her transfixing beauty in a series of expressionistic close-ups. Presaging Truffaut’s use of the actress as the emblem of ideal, inscrutable femininity in Jules and Jim, the director shoots his femme fatale as if she were a timeless sculpture, the contours of her face and the depth of her eyes objects of endlessly entrancing mysteries.
Elevator to the Gallows’s failing is that it’s incapable of spreading Moreau’s passion and sadness to its crime-thriller narrative, an attempt at fatalistic irony that awkwardly mixes elements of Hitchcock and Bresson films without ever generating substantial tension or surprise. Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a former Foreign Legion soldier disgusted by his war-profiteering corporate boss Mr. Carala (whose wife he’s seducing), murders the man and makes it look like a suicide. It’s a foolproof crime until, because of a stupid oversight and unlucky timing, Tavernier becomes trapped overnight in his office building’s elevator while a hood named Louis (Georges Poujouly) and his flower-shop girlfriend, Véronique (Yori Bertin), take a joyride in his car and wind up causing fatal trouble for a German tourist and his floozy wife.
Malle’s film thus becomes trifurcated between Tavernier’s imprisonment inside the titular elevator, Mrs. Carala’s nocturnal search, and Louis and Véronique’s escapades, the latter of which the filmmaker imbues with an off-the-cuff stylishness that would later become the hallmark of the French New Wave. And attempting to enliven his narrative with some political undercurrents, Malle and co-screenwriter Roger Nimier insinuate that Tavernier and Louis’s murderous actions are motivated, at least partially, out of a generational disgust with their amoral elders’ shallow, materialistic lifestyles and disregard for pressing (but ill-defined) societal issues.
Malle’s stabs at social commentary are thinly conceived, but more problematic is his inability to handle the demands of a noir-ish thriller. Even during his taut setup, the director resorts to using a black cat on a windowsill to foreshadow the murder plot’s eventual ruin, an instance of painful obviousness that exemplifies the film’s inability to meld disparate (humorous and anxious) tones. That Elevator to the Gallows, which is based on a novel by Noël Calef, will end with a bitterly paradoxical twist is foreseeable from the moment the adolescent Bonny and Clyde hijack Tavernier’s snazzy ride and begin playing around with his revolver, but Malle nonetheless dutifully goes through the genre-mandated motions, including nasty portraits of the press as bloodthirsty creeps and the police as spotlight-craving cretins.
The resulting murder-gone-awry story listlessly meanders toward a drawn-out third act in which Tavernier barks about his innocence to cops while Mrs. Carala unwittingly implicates him in crimes he both did and didn’t commit. Such aimlessness is made more engaging by Miles Davis’s improvisatory score, which periodically disrupts the film’s silence with bursts of plaintively wailing horns. Yet whenever the legendary jazzman’s trumpet isn’t embellishing (and echoing) the loneliness and heartache of Moreau’s lovely visage, Elevator to the Gallows’s level of excitement takes a precipitous drop.