The Opposite (of Noir)

I need to confess something: Louis Malle’s 1958 crime drama Elevator to the Gallows – proto-New Wave, Criterion Collection-approved, soundtracked by Miles Davis, the cornerstone upon which Jeanne Moreau built the rest of her legendary career – is starting to unravel for me. I used to consider it a taut little tragedy of errors, almost Coenesque in its cascade of mistakes; now, thinking about it gives me the giggles. Especially the title, where “gallows” does the heavy lifting of an honest-to-God freight elevator. An elevator to the gallows at first sounds like serious business, a one-way trip to the last place you’ll ever visit. But no condemned person in the history of the world has ever taken an elevator to reach the hangman’s noose. The original French title, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, is much improved, particularly if you don’t speak French. Even the British title, Lift to the Scaffold, is an improvement, since the implication could just as easily be that you’re heading out to watch a hanging and will pick a friend up on the way.

“But John,” you protest, “there’s an elevator in the movie. It’s kind of a key plot point.” Yes – there is! And it is in there that Elevator to the Gallows pulls off its mask to reveal a Seinfeld episode beneath. How can that be so? Because the elevator is where Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), our erstwhile hero, spends almost the entire length of the film. Why does he spend it there? He gets trapped when his office building’s custodian turns off the power and leaves for the weekend, because Paris in the 50s was a magical place where people were allowed to do things like neither work nor think about work for entire days at a time.

But how does Tavernier let himself get locked up in an immobile elevator at all? The laughter is about to come out of the can: he’s trying to return to his boss’ office to retrieve evidence of the murder he just committed and made look like a suicide. Tavernier, a French war hero whose exploits are discussed with reverence throughout the film, needs to kill Simon Carala so he and his lover, Carala’s wife Florence (Jeanne Moreau), can be together and whisper hot-breathed sexiness into each others’ ears without fear of pesky things like guilt or divorce lawyers. So, in the opening scenes, Tavernier puts on his gloves, gets his rope and his grappling hook, goes out on his office balcony, and climbs the side of the building to Carala’s office exactly one floor above in full view of anybody on the street who might happen to look up.

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Maurice Ronet just out for a casual broad daylight climb as Julien Tavernier in Elevator to the Gallows. Image courtesy Criterion Collection.

If you are anything like me, you watch this unfold with an eyebrow raised. But you forgive the movie this incredulity – every noir is based around an unlikeliness, a cunning coincidence; every movie, even the truly great ones, features at least one scene or exchange or plot point that doesn’t quite make sense – and you forgive it because you want the story to take you with it as it goes. And Tavernier does an excellent job of covering his own tracks. Until, the deed done and the getaway about to commence, he takes one last look back from the flower shop across the street…where his rope is still dangling there, swaying from the railing like a makeshift gallows.

If the audacity of Tavernier’s ascent to Carala’s office tickles your suspended disbelief, his extended stay in the elevator car attacks it with a feather and a wicked smile, dragging it lower and lower until you’re down there in the sitcom dirt and loving every minute of it. Richard Brody, writing for the New Yorker, got near to the point when he called the “elevator mishap” an “absurd” plot point and the rest of the film “an instant and derisive comedy.” I submit that Brody may have underestimated both the absurdity and the comedy by just a bit. Everything that follows Tavernier’s elevator mishap is gold, Jerry, and the mishaps and foolishness only become more prevalent.

Louis (Georges Poujouly), disaffected in his leather jacket, steals Tavernier’s idling car while the latter is off getting trapped in the elevator. Véronique (Yori Bertin), the flower shop clerk and Louis’ girlfriend, hops in for a lark. They get into a drag race on the highway with a pair of jolly German tourists. Mr. Bencker (Iván Petrovich) laughs with genuine mirth when Louis rear-ends him at race’s end, and invites the young couple in for drinks at his motel cabin, mirth and alcohol being of course the natural reactions to a car accident. Véronique registers herself and Louis as Mr. and Mrs. Tavernier, because she’s got a bit of an itch for Julien and because Louis won’t stop whining about how the police are definitely after him with an APB ever since, several weeks ago, he stole a bicycle. This revelation, this Peak Brooding from the endlessly morose Louis, is the precise moment where, for me, Elevator to the Gallows drops all pretense of being a movie and instead converts to full-on Seinfeld episode.

The quartet drinks all the champagne in the Benckers’ possession. Mr. Bencker deduces that strapping young Louis is not the cold-blooded war hero named Julien he insists he is. Louis murders Mr. and Mrs. Benckers with Julien’s actual gun and flee the scene. Back at Véronique’s apartment, she becomes the next character to have a perfectly normal reaction to a thing by insisting the only way for herself and Louis to ensure they’ll be together forever is to overdose on phenobarbital.

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Yori Bertin as Véronique. Image courtesy Criterion Collection.

She puts on a sweetly melodramatic record (the name of which I have been unable to find despite multiple Google searches), then gives them each half of her crumbling over-the-counter pill stash.

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Bertin and Georges Poujouly as Louis. Image courtesy Criterion Collection.

I really can’t tell anymore if Véronique’s monologue is supposed to be poignant or bittersweet or tragic. I can only hear it with a laugh track over the top. And now that I’ve introduced the idea, I wish the same delightful curse for you.

Image courtesy Criterion Collection.

Of course, they don’t actually die. There was only enough sedative to kill one of them! Splitting it in half just makes them both really groggy, which is a perfect metaphor for the type of intellect at work here. Louis can only hide his face. Véronique carries on like Norma Desmond, just a touch young for her ill-fated close-up, but well prepared just the same.

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Image courtesy Criterion Collection.

The worst thing about Seinfeld was that it made ironic detachment acceptable and helped popularize the snarky sneer as a way of life. I don’t want to be too snarky about this pair of idiots. But Elevator to the Gallows is a 30-years-early mirror held up to Seinfeld in that its characters are all trapped by their own ineptitude, yet utterly unable to see how funny that ineptitude is. In that regard, the crucial difference between the movie and the show is that Elevator‘s characters all function like the 2-D secondary and tertiary characters who populate Seinfeld‘s world beyond Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer. You can’t look for their analogues in Julien, Florence, Véronique, and Louis, because Seinfeld‘s four main characters have agency in response to bizarrely common situations, whereas Elevator to the Gallows‘ four leads are all acted upon by uncommon situations and find themselves unable to react by recognizably human standards.

Put another way: Seinfeld‘s leads do the laughing, and Elevator‘s are what they’re laughing at.

The one possible exception to this theory is Moreau, whose performance has not coincidentally been the most-praised part of Elevator to the Gallows‘ acting since its release. But her Florence is not immune to idiocy. It’s only because she sees Véronique leaning out the window of Julien’s (stolen) car that she spends the rest of the movie in a flaneur‘s daze, roaming the streets of Paris and checking in with the staff at all her and Julien’s usual haunts. Florence is torn between accepting that – in her own mind – Julien lost his nerve with Mr. Carala and made off with the flower shop girl for a consolation prize, and believing instead that there has to be some alternate explanation, that the man with whom she made such a filthy bed wouldn’t be so quick to jump out of it.

I call Florence’s response “idiocy” because it’s clear, even with the top down on the car, that Julien is not the one driving it. So, just as Julien’s obvious oversight traps him in an elevator, Florence’s sends her on a weekend-long wander, footloose as a girl but boxed in by her need for any news, any sighting, any inkling of the whereabouts of the idiot she loves.

When you start to see the film this way, Elevator to the Gallows becomes less and less about plot points or character beats (which it was never really about anyway) and more and more about juxtaposed vibe. And “vibe” is a game the film wants you to play on its own terms; for proof, see the genre-defining work Miles Davis put in, the natural lighting Malle relied on for all of Florence’s street scenes; the overwrought monologues about love and eternity. But the rules of that game no longer apply. Now, when Tavernier walks into Carala’s office, all I hear is, “You wanted to see me, Mr. Steinbrenner?”

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Maurice Ronet in Elevator to the Gallows and George Costanza as George in Seinfeld. Images courtesy Criterion Collection and Netflix.

The eagerness with which Véronique tries to convince Louis that the motel will actually be a great, fun time? It’s just hapless Elaine, trying to get out of a surefire bad date with a desperate lie.

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Poujouly and Bertin in Elevator to the Gallows; Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Elaine in Seinfeld. Images courtesy Criterion Collection and Netflix.

Even Moreau’s elegant exhaustion, her thousand-yard stare into the heart of the city, lose their exalted status. She becomes just another fully grown adult woman stuck with the kind of dead-end man who can barely be trusted to dress himself, let alone retrieve all the evidence from the scene of the crime they planned together.

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Jeanne Moreau as Florence in Elevator to the Gallows and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as Elaine in Seinfeld. Images courtesy Criterion Collection and Netflix.

In the middle of all this trouble, the evidence winds up in a little pile on the office building’s front steps. How did a grappling hook come unhooked from the fifth-floor balcony rail? Who knows? There was no one left in the building to throw it over the side; it’s all but impossible that a gust of wind, no matter how strong, would have woosh-ed the thing upside-down and sent it careening down to the street, where a little girl examines it. Florence happens to pass by and chides the girl for being out so late without her parents. And so the girl makes off with the evidence without having the slightest idea what it is. There are plenty of similar, quick coincidences in Elevator to the Gallows, little storyline overlaps that Seinfeld turned into a trick of the sitcom trade. Too many of them – the grappling hook; the stolen car driving right past Florence; Véronique and Julien assuming Tavernier’s identity; others involving photographs and croissants that I haven’t even managed to touch on here – and they veer past plot device and become farce. When everyone in your story is playing things absolutely straight, the farce gets compounded. The result here is a fascinating interplay of earnestness, irony, and unintentional mirth, not at all what its creators intended, but no less worth watching for that.

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