- The Washington Times - Friday, September 9, 2005

It would be difficult to improve on “Elevator to the Gallows,” a vintage French movie now in revival at the Landmark E Street Cinema, as a doom-ridden title.The entrapment situation that the title alludes to is also a pip.An amorous murderer named Julien (Maurice Ronet) plans to ambush his victim, an unsavory business executive, whose wife Florence (Jeanne Moreau) is Julien’s lover and accomplice, in a Paris office building on a Saturday morning.

The work force is skeletal.Julien, a former paratrooper, considers himself agile and ingenious enough to devise a locked-room homicide. Naturally, there’s a slip-up. Instead of making a prompt, clean getaway, Julien returns to the scene of the crime to recover evidence and ends up in a prolonged claustrophobic fix, stranded in an elevator when a security guard shuts down the building’s power for the remainder of the weekend.

Director Louis Malle (1932-1995) was making his feature debut after serving apprenticeships on prestige films:Jacques Cousteau’s “The Silent World” and Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped.” The latter had more bearing on “Elevator to the Gallows,” which derived from a pulp crime novel but depended on the suspense inherent in being locked up with the Ronet character as he struggles to find a means of escape.

In retrospect, it seems a pity that more of the film isn’t an exercise in nerve-racking confinement, because the scenario goes haywire when it attempts to scatter developments beyond the original crime scene. The director recalled that his co-writer, Roger Nimier, thought the source material was stupid. Evidently, they failed to remedy the shortcomings.

Disillusioning stupidities start to pile up with the excuse that sends Julien back into the building: He has forgotten that he left a grappling hook and long rope dangling from an upper floor railing. While doubling back, he leaves the motor running in his convertible. Parked conveniently out front, it becomes an irresistible temptation to a delinquent couple. They appropriate it for a crime spree, launching a cockamamie subplot that implicates the absent-minded Julien, because the thieves also abuse a revolver, overcoat and minicamera left in the car.

Miss Moreau’s adulterous Florence is left to cool her heels near the office, anticipating a rendezvous Julien is unable to keep. She drifts in and out of other establishments, asking if anyone has seen her missing sweetheart. This vigil inaugurates one of the cliches of Miss Moreau’s later starring career:tracking shots of the actress strolling in moody solitude and reflection. Cinematographer Henri Decae set the style for numerous imitators by relying on fast Tri-X stock and a minimum of night illumination to create an ominous, forlorn glamour around Miss Moreau’s street walking.

The footage you expect to be devoted to flashbacks about Julien and Florence, accounting for their original passion and ultimate murder conspiracy, is sacrificed to the joyriding exploits of the wild and crazy kids, perhaps already a market niche that filmmakers needed to appease in 1957. Dramatically, it’s absurd not to sustain the movie on the dilemmas confronting Mr. Ronet and Miss Moreau.

By the time the police get in on the confusion, the case appears to demand a sleuth with the skill set of Inspector Clouseau.The actors on hand for a third degree, Lino Ventura and Charles Denner, would become as familiar as the co-stars.In fact, Mr. Ventura specialized in cops for the remainder of his career.Jean-Claude Brialy, who became a French New Wave discovery a year later in Claude Chabrol’s “Les Cousins,” turns up in a bit part as a material witness.

To the extent that it remains diverting, “Elevator to the Gallows” thrives as a time capsule rather than a clever murder mystery. Mr. Decae’s eye for Paris soon became indispensable to other young directors.Mr. Malle’s bemusement with such things as automatic pencil sharpeners and France’s first motel, circa 1956, date the movie as social history in ways that are more fun than defective plot deception. One can defend the movie as an evocative period piece, but much of the entertainment value derives from sheer nostalgia or ludicrous miscalculations.

TITLE: “Elevator to the Gallows”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (made years before the advent of a ratings system; adult subject matter, with occasional profanity, violence and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Louis Malle. Screenplay by Mr. Malle and Roger Nimier, based on a novel by Noel Calef. Cinematography by Henri Decae.Music by Miles Davis. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

WEB SITE: www.rialtopictures.com

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