by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A married woman and her lover hatch an apparently foolproof plan to kill her husband (his boss), but a split-second decision at a crucial moment sends everything into a tailspin.

We plan, God laughs. – old Yiddish proverb

Let me get this out of the way right at the top: Elevator to the Gallows is one of the best crime drama/thrillers I’ve ever seen.  It holds its own against anything by Hitchcock or Clouzot.  With admirable focus and restraint, first-time director Louis Malle (My Dinner with Andre, Vanya on 42nd Street) crafts a gripping illustration of how the best laid plans can fall apart because of one minor miscue.

The film cuts right to the chase at the opening scene, showing a phone conversation between Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover, Julien Tavernier.  They discuss their plans for Julien to kill her husband in his office on a Saturday evening, after which he’ll pick her up at a café where she’ll be waiting, and that will be that.  Everyone will assume her husband is in Geneva on business, and no one will discover the murder, which Julien will arrange to look like a suicide, until Monday morning, giving Florence and Julien plenty of time to make their escape.

(I liked how we never got any flashbacks of the relationship between Florence and Julien.  All we need to know is, they’re lovers, they’re desperate enough to commit murder, and that’s it.  Very concise.  I love it.)

Julien’s plan involves using a grappling hook to avoid using the office elevator to get to his boss’s office one floor above his.  He proceeds with the plan, nearly getting caught in the process, but he’s able to commit the crime and leave the building with several witnesses as an alibi, witnesses who will say they never saw him enter his boss’s office before he left.  So far so good.

Julien gets to the street, takes the top down from his convertible, takes one last look back at the building…and realizes he left a vital clue in full view of any pedestrian or street cop.  Leaving his car running, he decides to run back into the office building and retrieve the evidence before the night guard shuts off the power for the night.

Unnoticed by Julien, a florist and her bad-boy boyfriend have been having an argument at the shop next to his car.  The boyfriend sees this rich man leave his convertible on the street…with the engine running…

Thus begins a Hitchcockian odyssey that leaves Julien stranded in an elevator, his car and his identity stolen, and his mistress stranded on the streets wondering where the hell her lover is.  At one point, Florence sees Julien’s car drive by the café where she’s waiting…she can’t quite make out the driver, but who is that girl in the car with him?!  Has she been betrayed at the last minute?

The film follows the younger couple, Louis and Véronique, as they tool around in Julien’s car, eventually winding up at a roadside motel, and unwittingly making friends with two German tourists.  They even share drinks with the Germans and take some candid photos using a little spy camera in Julien’s raincoat.  (We learn that Julien was in the Foreign Legion and was well-trained as a soldier – maybe even in spycraft.)  I found myself wondering why we were wasting time with this larcenous couple…until they decide to check into the motel as Mr. and Mrs. Tavernier to cover their own tracks.

The screenplay ingeniously heaps one hasty decision on top of another so that, just when it seems Julien might be in the clear, something else happens that makes it seem impossible he won’t be discovered or at the very least blamed for something he didn’t do.  Meanwhile, Julien is desperately trying to escape the elevator, using a penknife as a screwdriver, getting excruciatingly close to tripping a vital switch that’s just out of his reach.  He eventually tries to get out using the old climbing-the-cable trick…which is of course exactly when a night watchman is making his rounds.

This story is so good, I can’t believe there hasn’t been an American remake.  And it’s not like there aren’t other great films out there that cut right to the chase and never look back for flashbacks or additional material.  I’m not sure what makes Elevator to the Gallows so good, to be honest.  Maybe I was rooting for Florence and Julien when they are clearly not the good guys.  Maybe it’s the economy of the storytelling, or the screw-turning twists that lead the police to believe Julien has committed more than one murder.  At one point, Louis and Véronique make a startling decision that had me yelling at the screen.

Words fail me on this one.  I can’t describe it any better than by saying this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, certainly one of the best film-noirs I’ve ever seen, and a movie that I’ll bet Hitchcock watched while thinking to himself, “Damnation…I wish I’d thought of that.”

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