Panique

It’s 1947 in a suburban village outside of Paris, and a lonely Jewish photographer named Monsieur Hire (shortened from Hirovitch) patiently endures the gossip and pettiness around him, not seeming to mind his pariah status too much. It’s more a matter of broken-heartedness about his ruined marriage than grief over any recent mass deportation that might have happened, but that implication is certainly in the air too.

Mr. Hire starts taking a special interest in a younger woman who’s recently out of jail, but when a 40-some-year-old neighbor turns up dead in a vacant lot with her purse missing, guess who gets blamed for it?

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That’s Panique, directed by Julien Duvivier, who’s better known for Pépé le Moko, co-written by the Belgian screenwriter Charles Spaak, based on the novel by Georges Simenon.

It’s tempting to compare it to M, or to see some contemporary parallel to literal panic in it, and I’m sure that’s what most critics are seeing when they come across this re-discovered work. As a hunk of nostalgia, though – and who doesn’t want to walk through an old village before Parisian sprawl overhelmed it, and while a carnival is in town no less – it sticks in your craw because it damns the villagers themselves. One of the great themes of post-war literature, the passive wickedness of the upright citizen, was already being written about.

It also clocks in at a spartan 91 minutes, one of the things that makes the scripts of this period so elegant, and still so pleasurable to watch.

You can see the twist at the end coming a kilometer away, and yet that’s beside the point. Duvivier seems to have returned to France after a World War II period spent in Hollywood, with a bit of pith for the simple villagers. He wasn’t humming “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” that’s for sure.

Elevator to the Gallows

Louis Malle was to the French New Wave what the Kinks were to the British Invasion. Though he is not the first name you think of associated with it, nor the second or third, he is clearly of it and did many of the things it did first and better.

That’s what occurred to me yesterday as I left the matinée screening of Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) on the last day of its run at Film Forum. It was quite a sight: There were two dozen of us, by my count, which included one couple and all the rest of us solo viewers. What is it about arthouse cinema that inspires the same kind of following as weekday masses, where widowers and heartsick people worship in semi-private? But I digress…

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Jeanne Moreau and Yori Bertin, “So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you-ou-ou.”

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, written by Malle and Roger Nimier based on a novel by Noël Calef, was released in France on January 29, 1958, but didn’t come to the U.S. till the summer of ’61. In that interval, both The 400 Blows and Breathless came out. In the U.S., Hitchcock released both North By Northwest and Psycho, and a Papist became president. What a time.

Malle’s better known film The Lovers (Les amants) was also released in the fall of ’58, and in the interval between Elevator‘s French and U.S. releases, The Lovers caused a famous obscenity trial in Ohio, which it ultimately won. (The Kinks later got blackballed by the U.S. music business, and couldn’t tour right when the Beatles and Stones were solidifying their following with major U.S. tours.) So The Lovers became known as Malle’s first big film, and its upper middle class characters, and decidedly middlebrow atmosphere, put him at odds with the New Wave.

Elevator to the Gallows is basically a pulp novel story with higher aspirations, like lots of early Truffaut and Godard, and also looks like a New Wave film. Seeing Jeanne Moreau’s face lit by flashing lights, her makeup smudged, makes it feel like a low-budget labor of love. In the new digital restoration, you can see the boom operator’s reflection in the glass phone booth. Having seen it, I feel like I’ve been to Paris in ’58, and I can’t say the same for the Plaza Hotel or Mount Rushmore, as many times as I’ve seen North By Northwest.

Like Psycho, it begins like a step-by-step crime film, but instead of killing its heroine and becoming an admittedly unique whodunnit (a dull one, in my opinion), it sustains the tight time frame in three different stories: Tavernier, the man who just killed his rival, stuck in an elevator; the woman whose husband he just killed (Moreau) having a meltdown because she believes she’s being stood up; and the impulsive teenagers joyriding in Tavernier’s car, using his name. This all goes on a delightfully long time till the final unraveling.

The young couple playing the part of rebels is every bit as compelling as the kids in Breathless or A Band Apart, but Malle would never have been content with a story that was all about them. When Moreau finally tracks them down, it’s like an adult has broken up her teenagers’ beer party. Never mind your theater of rebellion, a broken heart is at stake here.

This is the kind of art-babble that kept me from going to grad school, but here it goes:

Elevator to the Gallows is ultimately a conflict between what medium is authoritative. It starts with the crime novel, which is just a point of departure. You know Tavernier will ultimately get caught, it’s in the title, but which crime will he get caught at, and how? Once he’s in custody, the free-wheeling New Wave locations give way to 100% atmosphere. The police station looks like a minimalist theatrical set, and we see some of the Malle we’ll get to know in My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. It looks like interrogation – simple dialogue – is going to one-up the detective story, and have the last word, but in the end it’s photography that’s decisive.

It’s often remembered for its Miles Davis soundtrack, and that’s a good enough reason to keep watching this film: