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The Criterion Collection: Elevator to the Gallows

Director Louis Malle, then 24 years old, made his feature debut with 1957's Elevator to the Gallows, a taut thriller about a "perfect crime" that turns out to be anything but perfect. Tough-as-nails Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) intends to kill his wealthy arms-dealer employer, whose beautiful wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau), is his lover. A former paratrooper in the Foreign Legion, Julien despises the man for profiting from war, and he fashions an apparent suicide: Entering and leaving by the window, Julien makes it look as if the man has shot himself in a locked room, which is a foolproof plan… except that, after he leaves, Julien realizes that he's left something behind. After going back to correct his mistake, he becomes stranded in the building's elevator when the power is shut off for the night, making him miss his rendezvous with Florence. Complicating matters, a juvenile delinquent (Georges Poujouly) and his girlfriend (Yori Bertin) steal Julien's car, get into an accident with a pair of German tourists, and eventually end up involved in a murder of their own. Presaging the French New Wave by a few years, Malle's film is atmospheric, tense and romantic, exhibiting all of the characteristics of the genre generally considered to have been introduced with Bob Le Flambeur (1955). Although the picture is ostensibly a crime thriller, the heart of the film is Florence and her despair at what she believes to be her abandonment by Julien. In her first film role, Moreau is the epitome of weary despair as she wanders the streets of Paris at night, searching bars and cafes for her lover. The cinematography by the great Henri Decae makes Florence's journey feel haunted and dreamlike, her quiet madness accompanied by a mournful, improvised score courtesy of Miles Davis. A classic of French cinema, a seminal crime thriller, the debut of a great director and, perhaps, the first New Wave film, Elevator to the Gallows is as compelling a picture as it is an important one. The Criterion Collection's two-disc DVD release is marvelous, offering a stunning, newly restored anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). Shooting with incidental light, this is a film of deep shadows, contrasts, and occasionally murky scenes — it all looks great here, very clean and as sharp as can be expected. The remastered monaural audio (DD 1.0) is also very good, although in this age of multi-channel surround sound it's difficult not to wish that Davis's score and ambient sounds could be presented with more complexity. It is, however, very clean, and more than serviceable. The extras on Disc Two are superb — a 1975 Canadian TV interview with Malle; a new interview with Jeanne Moreau discussing how she came to be cast in the film; a joint interview with Malle and Moreau at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival; an interview from 1957 with Maurice Ronet; a three-part section on Miles Davis' score, including archival footage of the recording sessions; and Malle's 1954 student film short "Crazeologie." Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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