Elevator to the Gallows (France, 1958):
(Ascenseur pour l’échafaud; Frantic)

A screenful of Jeanne Moreau sets the stage, insinuating gloom in silvery light and scheming over the phone -- she and Maurice Ronet are illicit lovers, arranging for a rendezvous following the murder of Moreau's swinish, arms-dealing husband (Jean Wall). Ronet uses a grappling hook to climb from the balcony and surprise the war-profiteer; "a paratrooper is an angel," Wall tells Ronet, moments before the young French Legion vet shoots him, making it look like a suicide. It is Saturday night and the building's closing, but one last piece of incriminating evidence brings Ronet back in, just to get stuck in between floors in the stalled elevator. Outside, his car is taken for some nocturnal hijinks by leather-jacketed punk Georges Poujouly and gamine Yori Bertin, who provide a complementary couple of criminal lovers by checking into a motel and shooting a German couple; Moreau, meanwhile, wanders the streets, adrift in her cloud of doleful ardor. For his movie debut, Louis Malle plays prematurely seasoned professional, and, merely by being in the right place at the right time, cunningly gives the impression of surfing a burgeoning film movement -- post-colonial remorse is chic, Miles Davis adlibs soundtrack jazziness, the youngsters' joyriding zippiness predicts Godard, Moreau's perambulations anticipate Antonioni. Malle's exercise is in terse noir-irony, a calling-card genre piece that insists on not being pinned down: Ronet's ordeal is Bresson, mostly (with a few seconds of Hitchcock), the teenaged outlaws botch a romantic double-suicide ("People will talk about us. We'll be an example"), the whole affair is tagged as "classical comedy" by a testy attorney. Still, the film's most striking effects are reaped by its actress -- Malle's cleverness plays into the night, although the dawn's harsh light falls on Moreau, surprised (and unashamed) at the extent of her passion in the back of a police station or contemplating the spiritual permanence of a tell-tale photograph. With Iván Petrovich, Elga Andersen, Lino Ventura, Charles Denner, Félix Marten, and Jean-Claude Brialy. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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