Louis Malle's forst project as a director was the Palme d'Or winning under water documentary "Le Monde du Silence." After this early success, Malle set about working on his first feature, and adaptation of crime novel by Noel Calef. An ingenious, deliciously Hitchcockian thriller, "Elevator to the Gallows" (Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud) was made in 1958 when its director was just 25 years old. In an 1975 interview, Malle was to remember: "We changed practically the whole story just keeping the basic plot -- the idea of a man trapped in an elevator for forty-eight hours over a weekend.
Despite displaying considerable know-how on he documentary, Malle was an inexperienced movie director. In the lead female role, he case Jeanne Moreau, who had started acting in her late teens and had become a familiar face of the theatre. However, despite her theatrical success she had made to do with bit parts on the big screen, over a period of ten years, until her appearance in "Elevator to the Gallows." The presence of older actress on set would prove reassuring for the relatively unseasoned Malle throughout the shoot.
The first minutes of Malle's first fictional feature film are executed with impressive flair -- the way the director cuts from the imminent assassination of a character to the deafening whir of a secretary's electric pencil sharpener. The story is about Julien Tavernier, a young Parisian businessman and an ex-Army officer. He conspires with his lover, Florence, to murder her husband (and his boss), who is an important arms-dealer. After much meticulous planning, Julien seems to commit the prefect murder, leaving Florence's husband dead in his office with his own gun in his hand.
However, as he is about drive away to meet Florence at a nearby cafe, he notices a piece of tell-tale evidence. Returning to the office, he becomes trapped in the lift. While he is stuck between floors, a local florist and her delinquent boyfriend, Louis steal his car and drive past the cafe where Florence is waiting. Florence sees the florist leaning out of the car's window, leading her to believe that Julien has backed out of the plan and taken off with a younger woman.
Meanwhile, Louis and his girlfriend end up in the company of a couple of German tourists. That night the young couple try to steal the German's posh car. When they are interrupted, Louis shoots the tourists dead (the gun is taken from the dashboard of Julien's car). This double murder leads to Julien being hunted by the police, who is trapped in a elevator.
"Elevator to the Gallows" emerges as an emotionally mature and classy thriller, its polished craftsmanship all the more impressive for being Malle's directorial debut. Al though parts of movie were shot in the studio, actual locations like the Champs Elysses were used effectively, notably in the scenes of Moreau searching for her lover through the streets of Paris.
For these tracking shots the camera was pushed along the road in a pram, pre-empting the guerrilla film-making tactics of Jean-Luc Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard in "Breathless" (1960). It's interesting to note quite how many New Wave films find their protagonists roaming aimlessly and desperately around the city like Florence. As a point of comparison, see Antoine Doinel's night in a printing factory in "400 Blows" and Pierre's deserted days in "Le Signe du Lion."
With its extreme opening close-ups, young cast and jazzy score, "Elevator to the Gallows" may easily be compared to Godard's feature debut "Breathless." However, the New Wave director who is most brought to mind during Malle's movie is Francois Truffaut, who put Moreau's breathy, impassioned voice-over to similarly good use in "Jules and Jim." Godard, Truffaut and Malle all shared an interest in Hitchcock and in the thriller genre, especially the B-movie, and all three filmed adaptations of pulpy novels during their careers. Malle also whisked together different genres in the same manner as his contemporaries.
There's enough material packed into "Elevator to the Gallows" to fill three or four feature films. Malle veers between the different stories with ease, juggling Julien, Florence and the teenagers' fates, intermittently leaving each in a precarious cliffhanger situation. He draws fine performances across the board, from Ronet and Moreau to the younger actors. Like Truffaut, Malle would display a knack for extracting engaging turns from young stars.
This was also only the third film to be shot by Henri Decae, one of the key cinematographers of New Wave. As well as shooting on the streets of Paris in the evening, gloomy interiors were chosen such as the police interrogation room, the photographer's dark room and the lift itself, lit by the flame from Julien's cigarette lighter. Julien's gleaming knife, in these scenes, is just one of numerous shimmering surfaces in the film. This picture also makes imaginative use of other assorted light sources, including the night watchman's torch and car headlights.
This unusual tale of a long journey to the end of the night has stood the test of time very well. The magnificent knotty, potty plot delivers some real surprises and deserves its awesome reputation.
Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'echafaud) -- IMDb
Elevator to the Gallows -- Roger Ebert Review