Friday, January 09, 2009

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, 1958)

One thing I love about certain old, noir movies is how moralistic they are. They may revel in murder, adultery, and all forms of vice, but in the end, the message is, “No matter how perfectly executed the crime, justice will find you.” In “Elevator to the Gallows,” the crime goes off almost without a hitch. Julien (Maurice Ronet), embroiled in an affair with his boss’s wife Florence (Jeanne Moreau), plots with his lover to kill her husband. He kills his employer in his office, staging it to look like a suicide. He makes only one mistake, but he recognizes it before it is too late, and zips back up in the elevator to fix things. Unfortunately for him, the power gets cut, leaving him trapped in the elevator with his boss’s dead body upstairs. He spends the night trying to figure out an escape, while Florence wanders the streets all night wondering what went wrong with their plan.

In a discussion of another noir movie, “The Third Man,” I believe, I commented that many noir films seem to have as a theme a basically good person who gets put into seedy circumstances in which he may or may not turn bad. Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” inserts us into the story a little farther along than that. Julien and Florence have already turned bad, and the theme here is another noir favorite, “Will they get away with it?” As in most of these older films, the answer is “No,” but along the way we get treated to the vicarious pleasure of rooting for the bad guys.

With this film, Jeanne Moreau continues her habit of playing bad girls, with this being one of her darkest roles, yet. In other of her films that I have seen, her characters are torn by complex motivations, and they are not completely evil. In “Elevator to the Gallows,” she is really just a murdering adulteress, and probably a gold-digger. A lesser actress might have overplayed an “evil seductress” role like this, but Jeanne Moreau plays it with self-contained grace. The reason she is so good at these roles is that she plays them without shame. She never asks the audience to forgive her or tries to remind us that she is just playing a character. In watching a Jeanne Moreau performance, the audience is confronted with a strong, female character of dubious morality, and we are not allowed to stereotype or pigeonhole her. Moreau brings all the complexity of a real woman to these roles. We may not love her characters, but we are never able to dismiss them.

4.5 stars out of 5

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