Elevator to the Gallows (1958): Critical Status–Then and Now

Elevator to the Gallows was a low-budget, black-and-white production, serving as the 24-year-old Louis Malle’s first feature film.

He had previously worked with Jacques Cousteau for several years, and was credited as co-director of the documentary The Silent World (1956), which won the top award at the prestigious Cannes Film Fest.

Far from being a debutante, Moreau, then age 30, had about a dozen films behind her–most of them forgettable.

Malle cast Moreau after seeing her in a Parisian production of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She had already been in a number of films, but her role in this film is her breakthrough. Malle filmed her without the heavy makeup and extreme lighting that previous directors had demanded. Scenes of Moreau wandering down the Champs Elysees at night were shot on fast film from a baby carriage using only available light from the street and shop windows.

In putting Moreau under candid and authentic light–her face features prominently throughout the text–the film offered a novel cinematic mode of “looking” at a woman.

Moreau’s face when Florence is pondering Julien’s whereabouts is often illuminated by the lights of the cafes and shops that she passes on the famous streets of Champs Elysees.

As modern lovers, Louis and Veronique would become a precursor to other young couples in New Wave films, such as the romantic duo of Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut, Breathless (1960).

By its own artistic merits, Elevator to the Gallows is not a major art work—overall, it merits the grade B. Yet the film occupies an important position in the history of French cinema due to its integration of image and sound.

For some, Miles Davis’ score is the film’s most inventive and best element. Recorded in one night, it was improvised by Davis and other musicians while they watched some of the film’s scenes. The score influenced the later development of Davis’s music and jazz in general, as well as soundtracks in future movies.

Miles Davis’s score for the film is considered by many to be groundbreaking. Jazz critic Phil Johnson described it as “The loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep.”

Remakes

There have been two film adaptations of Calef’s novel: Shikeidai No Erebêtâ (2010), by Japanese filmmaker Akira Ogata, and Weekend (2013), by Russian filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin.