Obviously, there are certain things you come to expect when taking in a noir film. There will be deceit and murder. There will be sharply dressed men and women; probably some fedoras and overcoats. Much of the action will unfold at night and the fuzz will be just as slick as the steely-eyed, bulletproof leading men and women.
Of course, that’s why noir is even a category to begin with. There's a fairly standard template, (some say it was Stranger on the Third Floor that started it all) and it's up to the auteur to fill in the details: the twists, the who-is-deceiving-whom, and the who, in the end, will receive the ultimate judgment.
When it comes to Elevator to the Gallows, the 1958 French noir directed by the widely acclaimed auteur (and one-time husband to Candace Bergen), Louis Malle, all the standard elements are in place: the film begins with a twisted, fairly well-rehearsed murder plot, created in the name of forbidden love. Julien Tavernier (played by Maurice Ronet) is an ex-Foreign Legion officer working for a Parisian company that seems to specialize in wartime wares: tanks, arms, etc. The company is run by a wealthy blowhard, Simon Carala. This is the guy Julien sets out to murder. The murder, as we quickly find out, is not a solo effort, but rather a collaboration between Julien and Carala’s wife, Florence, who has fallen in a rather manic-feeling love with Julien. It’s an exciting setup, but not all that surprising for a noir.
What sets Elevator to the Gallows apart is what’s hidden underneath this main narrative. The film gets to what I think is the heart of a noir: the bleak, depressing, heartbreaking underbelly of the world these characters live in. From the outset, we’re to believe that Julien and Florence are a slick pair acting righteously in the name of love. And that's believable to a point, but as the story unfolds the you get the feeling that actually, nothing about this life is all that desirable. It's a dark, complicated world.
When Julien gets himself stuck in an elevator moments before a planned rendezvous with Florence, she starts to fret and embarks on a manhunt through the fairly quiet Paris neighborhood in which she presumably lives (we never actually see her rather lavish-sounding home where she employs a full staff of cooks, drivers and secretaries, but one can imagine). The insides of the bars and restaurants are woefully depressing. These establishments are filled mostly with men staring into pints and wine glasses. There’s very little conversation atop those barstools, and the scenes are underscored with the slow, sparse horns of Miles Davis and his musical cohorts. As Jazz critic Phil Johnson remarked, “[Davis makes] the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear.” It works perfectly for the tone of this film – everyone, we find, is utterly alone. All the characters' perceptions – of themselves, of their version of love, and of the idea of leading an exciting life – are distorted. At the end of the film, everyone is alone, sent to prison to live out their lives inside a cold cell, torn apart from their lovers.
What’s also interesting is the parallel narrative. Aside from the main “A” story of Julien and Florence’s seemingly hopeless romance, there is a secondary plot, or “B” story of two younger, somewhat daring buffoons: Veronique and Louis. Veronique and Louis are two kids, presumably experiencing their first “real” relationship. Veronique seems obsessed with the idea of love while Louis is just along for the ride. He's a dark, brooding fellow with a penchant for telling tall tales about his past. He tells a man lies about his time in the military, when he fought in the Algerian war. Put simply, he has a very distorted sense of self. This secondary plotline is carried out while Julien tries desperately to free himself from the unmoving elevator. The story of Veronique and Louis only intensifies the idea that we’re all alone and that the perceptions we have about our lives and our identities are wildly out of proportion with reality.
In most noir films, Justice is served. Criminals are ousted for their wrongdoing, and people - in general - pay for the mistakes they made. The "Justice" served in Elevator to the Gallows, however, is much more crushing and swift than a simple prison term. Bonds are broken, self-worth is destroyed and everyone comes crashing back down to earth with an impressive (and depressing) speed.
This is not to say that the film is entirely and utterly depressing. The plot twists are exciting and the suspense Malle creates by inter-cutting tense, silent scenes of Julien hopelessly trapped inside an elevator proves to be masterful. In all, the film spans eighty-eight minutes which boils down to about seventy-eight minutes of suspenseful, exciting stuff and ends on a ten-minute long sucker punch to the gut. A punch I would be glad to take just about any night.
Hopefully I'll have someone to cuddle me later, though.