Friday, June 13, 2008

Elevator to the Gallows

There are two reasons to watch Louis Malle's stylish first feature, the languid noir Elevator to the Gallows, and unfortunately not much more than these two reasons: Jeanne Moreau and Miles Davis. The former appears, of course, in a starring role, though curiously she has little to say or do as the unhappy wife, Florence, of a successful businessman (Jean Wall), who is murdered by Florence's lover Julien (Maurice Ronet). Moreau's part mainly consists of walking the moody nighttime streets of Paris as she waits, in vain, for her lover to show up as planned after getting her husband out of the way. Malle films this aimless late night sojourn with an obvious love for the Hollywood noirs that inspired him, placing Moreau's perennially sad visage into a smoky, expressionist Paris of gleaming, reflective blacks and sudden downpours. Nobody did tristesse like the young Moreau, whose naturally down-turned mouth and soulful eyes could make her look either cruel or depressed, depending on the picture she was in and the character she was playing. Here it's a little bit of both, the harder edges showing in the way she casually sends her lover off to murder her husband without the least regret, while the rest of the film finds her in a more pensive, withdrawn mood as she wanders the rainy streets of Paris alone.

The second reason that this film is worth seeing is Miles Davis, who together with four other musicians improvised a masterful score that already shows signs of the development towards his soon-to-be-classic Kind of Blue. This propulsive score is driven along by the frenetic, sizzling drumming of Kenny Clarke, whose rhythms often imitate the hiss of the Paris rain; at one point, a crack of thunder on the soundtrack precipitates the introduction of the score, which rolls out of the aftermath of the thunder's roar as Moreau strolls the city. Davis' distinctive, warmly melancholy trumpet is the perfect complement to the film's more meditative moments. Despite the thriller premise, at moments like these the film often threatens to teeter into near-abstraction, in long dialogue-free stretches where Moreau walks around by herself, the jazz burbling away on the soundtrack, in the midst of a gorgeously shot Paris that has never looked better on film. The visuals alternate between sequences that locate the actress in this milieu, creating an almost documentary sense of place that is certainly to be expected from a director like Malle, who throughout his career has devoted his attention almost equally to fiction features and documentaries. But these naturalistic visions of Paris are also interrupted frequently by more expressionist closeups on Moreau's face, the Paris backdrop blurred into a stream of lights. In one remarkable shot, evocative of this approach, Moreau begins in the background of the scene, walking across a street roughly in the direction of the camera. She aimlessly comes forward, stops, then steps to the side and seems to, almost by chance, step into a closeup composition as the background begins to blur and her face comes into sharp focus. It's a beautifully executed moment, a masterful example of how Malle's careful planning and obvious technical proficiency sometimes conspire to create shots that almost seem accidental in their confluence of details and motions.

In these more abstract moments, it's easy to forget what's actually happening in the film, but elsewhere Malle is far too concerned with plodding, almost mechanically, through the thriller plot. Things of course go very wrong for Julien, which is why he never shows up for his rendezvous and leaves poor Florence out in the rain. Not only is he stuck in the film's eponymous elevator immediately following the murder, but he left behind a crucial bit of evidence at the scene. Moreover, his car is quickly stolen by a flower shop girl and her delinquent boyfriend, who go on a joyride into the country and wind up, somewhat improbably, committing two more murders in the guise of Julien. There are moments of poetic beauty even here, like the obvious joy that Malle takes in photographing the elevator's dark interior, lit only by the shaky flame of Julien's lighter, or the wonderful shots of a rain-slicked highway outside Paris as the two young car thieves race with a Mercedes, the headlights and street lights just hazy circles through a thick gray fog. Malle takes so much pleasure in such purely visual moments that it's very easy to forget just how rote and joyless the actual narrative is, saddled as it is with cheap ironies and an almost complete absence of convincing character delineation.

Indeed, most of the characters aren't developed very far beyond the noir archetypes they're based on, given little to do besides strike the requisite poses and look good in the high-contrast lighting. With that in mind, the young lovers on the lam are perhaps too much of a cliché to be taken too seriously, but they do seem like something of a blueprint for the sullen criminal lovers who would soon appear in Godard's first feature Breathless, there given sharper focus by the dialogue and Godard's willfully elliptical style. Here, the girl (Yori Bertin) with her cropped hair and cheerful demeanor is a harbinger of Jean Seberg, while the guy's (Georges Poujouly) faux-gangster attitude, complete with stolen trenchcoat and revolver, points the way forward to Belmondo. There's one beautiful, simple moment between this pair, when they're staying at a small motel and Malle sets up his camera behind the girl, her bare back to the screen as she sits up in bed, beckoning to her lover to join her. In the background, the boy walks by, shirtless and too skinny, and stands by the window as the rain streams down outside. It's a wonderfully evocative and private moment, the boy looking kind of straggly and no longer hip without the rain coat and leather jacket to bulk him up, and the girl suggesting her sensuality and sexiness with just the slender curve of her back to the camera. It's scenes like these that prove Malle's ability to get the most out of even the smallest moments, to wring out emotional nuances and resonances even from characters and situations that seem to have none.

On the whole, it's as though there were two separate films fighting against each other here: a by-the-numbers noir thriller and an abstracted mood piece on Paris by night. Neither film quite wins the battle, but it should be obvious which one I was rooting for, at least. Whenever Malle allows the film to shake the confines of its narrative and simply bathe in the Paris darkness, walk the streets with Moreau, or race into the suburbs in a stolen car, the film is luxuriant, stunning, strangely moving. These are moments one can stretch out in, get lost in, lapsing into deep thought like Moreau's character, who as she wanders the streets is constantly murmuring to herself, her lips moving with no sound coming out. Malle's fidelity to the noir genre is more unfortunate, though, especially since he seems to be stuck with a totally standard script and no idea how to spruce it up other than to divert attention from it as often as possible. The result is a film where the diversions are much more pleasurable than the main line, and where the simple experience of walking in the rain trumps all the drama of murders and police investigations.


DavidEhrenstein said...

I agree to a degree. But it's still a wildly enjoyable film. And for Malle a kind fo "sitting-up exercise" for Le Feu Follet -- his "long walk" masterpiece.

reassurance said...

I also agree with Daveidehrenstein; I think this film is absolutely lovely. But I'm sure we're in agreement that if Jeanne Moreau is the only reason to watch a film, that's a helluva lot more alluring than if a film with a handful of other merits.

Ed Howard said...

Sure, if all a film has to offer is moody shots of Moreau walking in the rain accompanied by Miles Davis music, that film is already worth watching just for that. Even if she doesn't have many lines or much to do, she always manages to be a compelling presence based solely on her unforgettable face.

Of course, I'll probably excite some outraged reactions if I say that Moreau is similarly the main reason that Jules and Jim is worth watching at all. Even more so, The Bride Wore Black.