Elevator to the Gallows Is One of the More Unique Crime Thrillers You'll Ever See - VRGyani News and Media

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Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Elevator to the Gallows Is One of the More Unique Crime Thrillers You'll Ever See

Crime cinema and film noir are filled with stories of people committing a foul deed, followed by the fallout of that particular crime, usually in the form of the police or investigators of some sort finding the small hole in the criminal’s plan that makes everything fall apart. These stories create uneasy tension in the audience, due to our natural sympathies with wanting the protagonist to get away with what they have done running parallel with our desires for some sort of justice. However, the films within this genre tend to exist in seemingly insular worlds, where only the hunter and the hunted are of concern. A more rare breed of crime picture is one that explores how one incident acts as a rock dropped into a lake, causing a ripple effect that grows and grows.

On the onset of the French New Wave in 1958, a twenty-four year old director named Louis Malle directed his first feature film, which at a lean 91 minutes manages to expertly showcase the ever expanding cause and effect of a murder over the course of a few days. Elevator to the Gallows, based on the novel Ascenseur pour l'échafaud by Noël Calef, is designed with clockwork precision and moves at fast pace, making for an exciting thriller. Unlike many other stories like this, the film does not operate as if the filmmakers had set up an elaborate pattern of dominos to see how they fall. Instead, Malle shows you one domino and places another next to it just before the first one hits the ground. He then repeats this tactic over and over, bringing in another domino you didn’t even know he had.

Elevator to the Gallows begins with Julien (Maurice Ronet) going through his murder plot to kill his boss (Jean Wall), staging it as a suicide, in order to run off with the boss’ wife Florence (Jeanne Moreau). After an impatient security guard causes Julien to hurry himself a bit too much by having his secretary buzz him in his office, he neglects to pull down the rope he used to climb to another floor of his office building undetected. Noticing this as he is about to drive off, Julien attempts to quickly run into the building to fix his error, but the security guard turns off the power to the building for the weekend while Julien is still in the elevator, trapping him in there for the weekend.

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In a low-budget crime film from a very young director, perhaps the most obvious direction for where this story goes is to spend the rest of the film following Julien’s attempts and failures to get out of this elevator, seeing people eventually notice the rope and investigate the building. While these story elements certainly are apart of the narrative, this murder does not just affect Julien. Thinking it will only take a moment to get the rope, he foolishly leaves his car running, and it is stolen by a young criminal named Louis (Georges Poujouly) and his girlfriend Véronique (Yori Bertin), who take a trip out of town and use Julien’s identity in the process. Meanwhile, Florence, Julien’s lover, sees the stolen car drive by the café she is waiting at for Julien and assumes he has abandoned her for the younger Véronique, who she sees in the car.

One of the major factors that allows for the sprawling story of Elevator to the Gallows to take place is Louis Malle dropping us right in the middle of the action. We see nothing of Julien and Florence’s courtship, the planning of the murder, or the proper status quo of the world. If you think of Double Indemnity, arguably the high watermark of the film noir genre up until that point, Billy Wilder structures that film to where the central murder occurs about halfway through the film. Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar winning film Fargo, one of the greatest films operating in the same milieu since Elevator to the Gallows, the central kidnapping that begins the spiral of many characters’ bad decisions does not happen until eighteen minutes into the film, and the introduction of officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), arguably the lead of the movie, happens at the 33-minute mark. Malle wastes absolutely no time, having everything mentioned in the plot thus far occur within the same amount of time it takes to get to Fargo’s kidnapping.

By effectively replacing the setup with the inciting incident, Louis Malle removes the audience’s ability to have preconceived notions about where the story is headed. If there were scenes with these characters prior to the murder, we might begin constructing our own theories as to how all these people will eventually intertwine, and if and when they do, we can all pat ourselves on the back for figuring it all out. Instead, the flow of events from one to another feels like a surprising, yet perfectly logical, next step to the story which so easily could have been shown to you in a diagram before the boss is even murdered.

This structural decision also allows the central characters to not be beholden to their relationships with the other characters, particularly in the case of Louis and Véronique because they have none. Those two have zero idea about Julien committing murder. As far as they are concerned, their own low-budget crime movie begins with them stealing the car, which eventually leads to Louis committing his own murder of the Bencker couple (Iván Petrovich and Elga Andersen) in order to steal their car at a motel. The Benckers have absolutely no idea who Julien is, and the same goes the other way. Yet, the ripple effects of that crime of passion eventually reach out to claim the lives of this harmless, middle aged German couple on holiday.

What makes the unexpected chain reactions of Elevator to the Gallows ultimately so satisfying is how they all circle around on themselves, where sprawling plotlines double back on themselves in ways that only could have happened had they been allowed to go so full off on their own. Because Louis had been impersonating Julien, the murder of the Benckers is pinned on Julien, ironically getting him arrested for a murder he did not commit rather than one he did. While we have been aware of the act Louis and Véronique have put been putting on, the idea of their choices affecting Julien and Florence, one character who they had not seen since the opening minutes and one they had not at all, comes as both a shocking plot development and a pleasing connection to tie these disparate stories together.

When a film follows several characters, as opposed to a traditional singular protagonist, often the people are working in conjunction with one another or are pointedly separated, either to be brought together by a climactic event or not at all. Louis Malle, as a first time feature film director, manages to craft a film where our central group of people all start out generally in the same place, branch out off into their own separate, unrelated adventures, and yet those adventures all lead them back to eventually crash back into each other, always with the feeling that the characters’ actions dictated where the story was going rather than them existing as pawns in a storyteller’s grand scheme. Elevator to the Gallows shines as an example of trusting your characters to make interesting choices, whether that be trying to steal a car or wandering through the bars of Paris in search of your lover, as Florence does. Far too often, filmmakers feel the need to be too clever by half in how they plot their crime thrillers when all they need are clearly defined people making efficient decisions organic to those people. Though those characters may not take you where you think they will, their stories will be more interesting for it.

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