Monday, June 7, 2010

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Before Zazie dans le m├ętro, before Lacombe, Lucien--and way before Pretty Baby and Atlantic City, Louis Malle directed a hardboiled existential thriller, Ascenseur pour l'├ęchafaud, that manages to be exciting and loaded with ennui at the same time.

An executive loves his boss's wife, kills the boss, tries to beat a hasty retreat--but is stuck in the elevator. Down at street level, a French James Dean and his girlfriend steal the murderer's car and get into their own trouble--for which the murderer is blamed. All the while, the luminescent Jeanne Moreau, like some beautiful deep-sea creature, drifts through Paris at night, her inner monologue of love and despair counter-pointing the panic and casual brutality of the main plot.

Or is there a main plot? The above speaks only to the bare skeleton of this layered picture. Consider the background of the killer: ex-Legionnaire, paratrooper in Indochina and Algiers, a real cold-blooded customer for the dirty work of a confused empire. And the joy-riding punk and his girlfriend, at once amoral and touching. And of course Moreau herself, commanding the picture just by wandering around, the archetype of the French lover who knows that love and death make their own dark tryst.

Malle handles all of this not without a little misstep--or maybe sidestep--here and there, but the plot(s) is/are so strange and claustrophobic, the mistakes so fatal, the acting so cool and loose--or cool and tightly wound, depending on what's up in their what-next world--that all is forgiven, and Malle leaves us with a movie that stays in one's mind like all the great images of the French New Wave: washed in rain, alternating between hope, acceptance and despair, and intercut with dark and light like those faces in Ezra Pound's station of the Metro, "Petals on a wet, black bough."

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