It’s been kind of hilarious to me to read some of the semi-to-totally outraged think pieces about the “nostalgia” factor of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Firstly, because the franchise has ALWAYS been about nostalgia, drawing on Flash Gordon movies, not to mention Kurosawa movies, among many other inspirations.
But also because film has always drawn on other films practically from the time film first existed. For instance, many films of the French New Wave, which are so lauded (rightly so) were heavily influenced by Hollywood films.
It’s not like the filmmakers kept it a secret, either. In fact, auteur theory was developed by some film critics who later became the greatest directors of the French New Wave, including Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. Many times, Hollywood directors, such as Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and Alfred Hitchcock, were used as examples of auteurs in their writings.
Although many date the beginning of the French New Wave from Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows, sometimes Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, released the previous year, is cited as the first.
Elevator to the Gallows is also an early “neo-noir.” Taking many of the conventions of American film noir, Malle turned it into something that feels both familiar and new.
The story begins with a passionate phone call between two lovers, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). It soon turns out Florence is married to a wealthy arms dealer (Jean Wall) and the couple plan to murder him.
The plot seems ingenious. While Carala is in his office alone, Tavernier uses a hook and rope to climb to his floor just as the office is about to close for the weekend and Carala is supposed to leave on a business trip. Tavernier shoots his lover’s husband and stages the murder like a suicide, even making it look like it took place in a locked room.
All he has to do is leave the building, get in his car, meet Florence, and wait for someone to discover the body on Monday.
Unfortunately, he left the rope and hook hanging on the side of the building. Spying his incriminating error and not even bothering to turn off his car’s engine, he runs back into the building to recover it.
Meanwhile, a flower shop girl Julien knows named Veronique (Yogi Bertin) and her boyfriend Louis (Georges Poujouly) see the car left running in the street. To Veronique’s horror, Louis gets in the car and begins to drive away. She hops in the car with him at the last minute.
Julien enters the elevator and begins to ascend, but at the same moment, the building’s security guard turns off the electricity. He becomes stuck in the elevator.
Florence, waiting for him at their rendezvous, sees Julien’s car drive by her—and a pretty young girl sitting in the passenger seat. Shaken, she begins wandering the streets of Paris searching for her lover.
The story now splits into three threads—Julien’s attempts to escape in the elevator, Florence’s desperate search for him, and the young lovers’ joy ride. Eventually the threads converge and, as one would expect in a noir, reach an ironic and fatalistic conclusion for all the characters.
(I hate to reveal more specific plot points because some of the twists are great.)
The style of the film is very reminiscent of American noir—superb black and white cinematography (by Henri Decae), excellent use lighting and camera angles, very tight, suspenseful scenes. It even includes a jazz score by American jazz musician Miles Davis. But the movie diverges from American noir in some significant ways.
For one thing, it’s more overtly political than an American noir. American noir, particularly classic American noir, was usually only political in the subtext. Carala is a war profiteer who has made a fortune from wars in Indochina and Algiers. He’s also an arrogant prat who doesn’t believe Julien has the guts to kill him.
There are references to World War II (the young lovers meet up with some German tourists who make light of the war). Louis, a kind of James Dean wannabe, declares his generation will be different from those before his. There is also talk about the different ways men and women are judged and punished for their actions.
While Florence is the nominal femme fatale, she is far more empathetic than the usual American version. She doesn’t seem to need to persuade Julien very hard to commit murder, and his motivations for doing it may stretch beyond simply wanting Carala’s woman for himself. Unlike most femme fatales, her feelings for Julien seem genuine; she’s not just using him as a means to an end.
What’s most remarkable to me about the film is that Malle was only in his mid-twenties when he made it, and yet it’s a very self-assured work.
Elevator to the Gallows is one of several examples of how French New Wave filmmakers used American film as a jumping off point to create films that feel uniquely French. Seeing it again many years after my first viewing in film school, it still seems very fresh.