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…


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:

Godard and All That Self-Importance

If Joseph Conrad, Jean-Luc Godard, and Ozzy Osbourne all had your birthday, you’d be excused for thinking you’re a writer with something very important to say. Or at least, who’s entitled to a little more self-importance than the average goateed guy with a MacBook.

Well, they are all three born on the same day, December 3rd, and it is my birthday, and I see these guys, my fellow children of 1-2-3, as cautionary examples. Sagittarians in general like to think of ourselves as “the deep ones” wherever we go, but we’re prone to over-thinking things, and philosophy and religion for their own sake. And none of these three ever suffered from any, shall we say, deficit in their estimation of the importance of their own work.

Inside cover of Paranoid.

Inside cover of Paranoid.

It’s years since I’ve tried reading Conrad, but I’ve listened to more Black Sabbath since I turned 40 than in all my previous life combined, and by a lot! Their first two albums Black Sabbath and Paranoid are rock itself at its best. But then they embraced their devil music label, played to their own devoted fan base, whose taste was getting worse, and made a lot of mediocre music.

Sounds like Godard! It’s never enough for an Ozzy Osbourne to sing love songs (or lust songs) like Robert Plant. He has to go for the Satan versus God thing. And it’s not enough for Godard to make some smart but catchy films like his first few. He has to make definitive statements about cinema itself, and dare you to say “I don’t get this.” Ingmar Bergman has some juicy quotes about St. Jean-Luc’s excessive intellectualism:

“In this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

Godard was at his best when he was breezy.

Godard was at his best when he was breezy.

To a different interviewer, he was less kind: “I’ve never gotten anything out of [Godard’s] movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a fucking bore. He’s made his films for the critics.”

“He’s made his films for the critics”!

If we’re going to get catty, though, we should point out that Bergman’s early films – the simple stories and comedies he shot with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer – are aging better than his “great period.” I wish I could go back in time and take every copy of The Passion of Anna from every DVD shelf where it’s been the only Bergman selection for the past fifteen years, which is not uncommon, and replace it with Summer Interlude or To Joy. Things started going off the rails when Bergman became the keeper of the flame of important cinema, unsparing in his honesty and daring and precise in his use of camera. In other words, the deeper he got with longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist, whose birthday happened to be – guess when – December 3rd.

(It’s also Julianne Moore’s birthday, and she seems to have it all figured out, so there is hope.)