Describing the plot of Louis Malle’s son-of-film-noir just sets up misleading expectations, but here goes anyway: Maurice Ronet kills his shadily connected boss — the husband of his lover, Jeanne Moreau — but leaves a piece of evidence behind. Returning for it, he gets stuck in an elevator shut off for the night. His car is stolen, and the proto-Godardian teens that heisted it check into a hotel under his name and murder two tourists with his gun. So, to beat the rap for the double murder, he has to admit to being at the scene of the murder he did commit. Nifty, huh?
Well... the premise, and its newsstand paperback roots, imply a slickness that the first-time director didn’t employ: as with other New Wave films (check out the Psycho homages in Chabrol’s Unfaithful Wife — also with Ronet — a decade later) Elevator to the Gallows is interested in the idea of suspense, suggesting a noir milieu familiar to a movie-saturated generation through its quotation of genre signifiers and tropes from Hitchcock. Moreau dramatically locks the youthful bandits in their room and takes the key with her; within five minutes they pull the spare one out of the drawer.
The stark, single-sourced lighting of Maurice’s bare-set interrogation is where the scene’s dramatic tension comes from: by recalling the tenseness of previous thrillers, Malle, co-scenarist Roger Nimier, and cinematographer Henri Decae are free to play around with the form. It’s hard to say how well Moreau’s bleakly romantic voice-overs or the cool grit of the Paris she wanders through would work without Miles Davis, whose improvised, chillily distant score is enough to make any movie buff flip up the collar of his jacket and the lid of his Zippo.
Opens July 24 at Landmark Sunshine