Legendary French director Louis Malle made one of the great debut movies in cinema history with his 1958 masterpiece Elevator to the Gallows. Starring Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as Florence and Julien, secret lovers planning the murder of her powerful husband (his boss), only to have their perfect plan slowly unravel over the course of the movie's 91 powerfully tense minutes. A haunting, lonely score improvised by Miles Davis sets the backdrop of inevitable tragedy in the lives of our characters. Moreau, who didn't do anything for me in Truffaut's Jules and Jim, here uses her strangely attractive features in a wonderful performance of a woman hoping and searching and afraid for the safety and whereabouts of the lover she can't find, almost going mad with worry. Because, after the murder of her husband, Julien spends the night trapped in the elevator of the building in which he'd just committed the crime.
Elevator to the Gallows has the same trajectory and tone as many of the American noirs of the 40's and 50's that I've been watching lately. It has the same kind of inescapable sense of doom that hangs over so much of the characters actions. I wasn't sure how things would turn out, being that it was a French take on the genre, but I was gripped to my seat like almost no other noir has gotten me. Gorgeously shot in stark black-and-white by cinematographer Henri Dacae, we get a lot of classic noir shots of dark streets, interrogation rooms, and rainy nights. Malle, only 24 when he made the movie, directs with a tight hand. There's nothing wasted in the hour and a half that we spend in this world. We see Julien struggling to get out of the elevator, Florence wandering Paris looking for him, and the young couple who steal Julien's car and go on their own tragic journey through the night.
I'm always happy to have made another successful venture out into world cinema, with this being probably only second to the great heist movie Rififi as my favorite French movie. I liked this much better than my previous Malle movie, Atlantic City, and put it high on my list of favorite noirs. I'll always remember Jeanne Moreau's haunting face and Miles Davis's equally effective score. I'll also be looking forward to my next foray into Louis Malle's catalog, and French film in general.