“I showed a Paris not of the future but at least a modern city, a world already dehumanized.” — Louis Malle
The question of where to start a retrospective of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) is problematic. All would agree that 1959 was the explosive year, the year that Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour galvanized the movement and brought French filmmakers into the vanguard of European cinema. But like all cultural movements, stirrings were happening earlier, the best example of which is the film that I’ve selected to kick off the fall lineup: Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud), from 1958.
Stylistically, Louis Malle is a notoriously difficult director to pin down. His career from the very beginning–which starts here incidentally, in 1958, at 25–has been filled with idiosyncrasies and an aversion to easy pigeonholing. It would have been simple to stick with a formula that worked and keep producing slight variations on a theme; after all, more complacent directors have spent entire financially-lucrative careers doing just that. But remarkably Elevator to the Gallows is Malle’s only thriller in a career that lasted 30 years. Soon he would be on to projects as diverse as The Fire Within, the story of a man’s last day before suicide, and Zazie in the Metro, his outlandishly anarchistic adaptation of the modernist French novel by Raymond Queneau. Malle was not a member of the clique of critics-turned-directors whose names are now synonymous with French New Wave: Truffaut, Charbol, Rohmer, and Godard. Malle came from a prosperous family of French industrialists and grew up in a world quite unlike that of Truffaut and his boy alter-ego, Antoine Doniel, in 400 Blows. But like Malle, they all shared an obsession for the grittier elements of classical Hollywood cinema: the film noirs of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder; the dark domestic weirdness of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray; and the tight narrative meticulousness of Alfred Hitchcock.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Elevator to the Gallows is, in a sense, the first New Wave thriller, or perhaps the first New Noir. This is even more noteworthy given its screenplay’s origins in a rather bland boilerplate novel that caught Malle’s eye. After cutting his teeth as an assistant cameraman to Jacques Costeau and Robert Bresson, Malle took the work to a writer he admired, Roger Nimier, and suggested a collaboration. Nimier thought the story ridiculous but agreed on the condition that they rethink things, keeping the good bits, tossing the bad, and expanding when necessary. One key change in their adaptation is the emphasis given to the female character, who goes from prop to protagonist. For this important role, Malle cast Jeanne Moreau, a stage actress then primarily known for parts in B-films. Her melancholic performance was precisely what the film required: it becomes a film not about murder, but about loss and frailty, propelled forward by Miles Davis’s jazz score and the slow tracking shots that follow Moreau through the rainy Parisian streets. Gone are the voice-overs of noir past, with their clichés and canned fatalism. Instead, Moreau’s internal monologue reflects an existential ennui about the modern world, a world debased and morally askew, “already dehumanized” as Malle notes above. In what would go down as one of the most well-regarded jazz soundtracks of all time, Miles Davis famously played the score live, watching the film on a screen in the studio while his quartet improvised, adding, as spectators and participants, new layers of emotional complexity. Throughout these drifting street night shots, the presence of Davis and his trumpet becomes an essential component just as key as Moreau to achieving Malle’s narrative goals. In doing so, they created something entirely modernist and new, a thriller not afraid of large silent spaces, contemplative, and even romantic.
The symbol of the road is important here, a metaphor for transition and lack of permanence. Like his peers, Malle shared an obsession with the street, for the stark naturalism of the postwar Italian “Neo-Realist” movement best exemplified in Rosselini’s Paisan and Rome Open City (of their European contemporaries, it is probably he, along with Bresson, who exerted the most influence on the early aesthetic of the New Wave, particularly cinematography and sound.) The release of Tri-X black-and-white film in 1954 is an often overlooked moment in the history of film. For the first time, it allowed for naturalistic lighting, for actors to look grainy and devoid of the Hollywood gloss, for crews to load into a pram with nothing but a camera and a mic and film quickly on location. The film’s technicians were aghast at the early takes. Jeanne Moreau should only appear beautiful, they said. Why would Malle put her in the rain and make her look miserable? Such was the state of French film, with upbeat picturesque motifs on Parisian romance the norm in those days.
Also of note are the script elements critical of French foreign policy and its colonial militancy abroad. Although not known as a particularly political director, Elevator does project a general war weariness creeping into French culture, with snide dialogue jabs at war profiteering in Algeria and Indochina, as well as the worthy plot point of a military industrialist being killed with his own gun.
So Elevator to the Gallows holds a unique spot, being neither the opening salvo in the New Wave’s assault, nor championing and upholding the outdated “cinéma de papa” (“Dad’s cinema”), as the young turks arrogantly referred to the French film establishment. It stands as a remarkably polished and competent first film from a director who would go on to create a body of work as diverse as Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Atlantic City (1980), My Dinner with Andre (1981), and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994).