Elevator to the Gallows was the film debut of celebrated French director Louis Malle, probably best known to most Americans for either “My Dinner with Andre” or “Au revoir, les enfants.” Elevator to the Gallows isn’t really like either of those – having not seen a lot of Malle’s other work, I can’t really speak to how similar it is to some of his other earlier films, but it IS pretty similar to other French films I have seen from the same time.

It’s a film noir about a pair of lovers who plan to murder the woman’s husband, make it look like suicide, and then live happily ever after. Unfortunately, what seems like a simple plan falls apart on a pretty epic level, as the man ends up stuck in an elevator in the very same building that he just killed the husband, while at the same time his running car is stolen by a young hooligan and his girlfriend. The mistress sees the car driving off, but can only see the girl in the passenger seat, so she thinks it’s her murderous partner driving off with another woman. That’s a pretty rough couple minutes – you’d almost feel bad for the guy, if he wasn’t a murderer.

The story takes place over the course of about 24 hours, as we watch the man try to escape the elevator, his mistress wander the city looking for him (even though she now believes him to be unfaithful), and the young couple who stole his car. At first, I wasn’t quite sure why the young thieves were part of this, and I expected to be kind of bored with their section of the story. But they actually become very important, as the young man encounters a pair of German tourists at a motel with disastrous results, and because he is driving the main character’s car and using his name, it only serves to further tighten the metaphorical noose around the necks of the plotting lovers. This is one of those movies where you sort of sense everything heading to a potentially bad ending for everyone involved, and the fun is watching how it all plays out.

I really liked the film. It’s pretty slow moving, but never boring, and there are several scenes of genuine tension that are really effective. The black and white photography is pretty excellent, especially when the movie dips into more heavy Noir influences, such as the dark scenes inside the elevator at night, or an interrogation sequence which appears to be taking place in limbo. One of the best things is the score, by none other than Miles Davis. I guess it’s not a surprise that a score by someone as talented as Davis WOULD be excellent, but I just wasn’t even really aware he did any music for film until watching this. His work here is a perfect match for the film, at times perfectly capturing the sadness and despair of the characters in a way no dialog ever could.

I’d definitely recommend this, especially to any Film Noir fans, or just fans of French cinema and realism in general. Or anyone who is REALLY into elevators.

This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on April 17th, 2011.

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