ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (1957/8 France)

5110f1ab49e57_267051bAs I type these words I feel like Prince Charles’ fingertips. Or where ever his brain is located. Is this story an answer to his question “whatever love means?” If this is love, then it makes everyone thoroughly miserable. They are fighting back the tears, digging their nails into the palm of their hand or turning their face toward a rain-soaked wall. But as an Anglo-Saxon what do I know? Maybe this is normal.

Drowning in precipitation, plus a jazz score by Miles Davis, what we have here is a moody film noir starring Maurice Ronet as Julien Tavernier, an office worker who murders a wealthy industrialist. Why? To be with the victim’s wife of course. She with the thousand yard stare. He needs the type of comfort she is offering. You know the kind. Soft. Volcanic. Deep. Hot. Whatever…all served up with a Gallic shrug of indifference and pouting lips.

This is a plot typical of film noir. What complicates the grim story is this: the victim is a war criminal who profited off France’s many colonial occupations (specifically in Algeria and Indochina). Julien, meanwhile, is a war hero and former parachutist who sees his kill as a form of poetic justice. This is a noir however, and so Julien’s best laid plans swiftly go awry.

Pretty soon he finds himself trapped in an elevator and so caged at the very site of his crime. His predicament is inter-cut with the adventures of two teenagers in lust, Louis and Veronica, who steal Julien’s car and assume his identity. With this stolen identity comes another crime: the duo shoot to death two German tourists. To exonerate himself of the duo’s crime, Julien must thus implicate himself in his own crime.

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Note to self while stopping the DVD about half way through (for a shower): Where are the police in all of this? The only answer I could come up with was – the cops are as angry and confused as Prince Charles was back in ’81 when the Archbishop Of Canterbury instructed him to forsake all others. And just like that adventure, this one was not going to end happily either. (Come to think of it…oh never mind) Director Louis Malle (a mere 24 when this was being shot) then engages in another, largely symbolic sub-plot. Here Julien represents the men of the inter-war years, idealized, mythologized and touted as noble heroes.

Louis, meanwhile, becomes indicative of post-war youths, living in the shadow of the War and envious of the nationally recognized achievements of those who came before. To assuage such feelings, Louis assumes Julien’s identity and unconsciously becomes a WW2 soldier, even going so far as to murder two Germans on French soil with Julien’s pistol. It’s not only that Louis eventually realizes what the sanctified image of Julien really represents, like Julien’s own realizations with regard to his boss, but that both Julien and Louis find themselves unable to stop killing.

The war makes a murderer out of one, and forces the other to kill out of fear of exclusion. “Elevator to the Gallows” co-stars Jeanne Moreau: intriguing and curious, seducing every inch of celluloid she could eat up. She gives her usual long, meaningful, stares into the camera. She is all thought – charged silences too. She is existential ennui, 1950s style. If Colin Wilson had a female French double, it would be Jeanne Moreau. She is The Outsider. An Angry Young Woman. Just without the duffle coat. These days she is probably an angry old woman with a duffle coat.

In French cinema we know people love one another very much, not because they’ll show it, but because they endlessly talk about it. So the way we know Tavernier and Mrs. Carola love each other deeply is by hearing them drone on and on about it. If you like French chick flicks, get used to it and stay in your chair. Remember its only words. But they make the world go round. I’ll never understand the French, but I can’t help admiring them.

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