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  • Ravi Swami

"Elevator to the Gallows", Dir: Louis Malle, 1958

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

I was aware of the "Nouvelle Vague" / "French New Wave" cinema of the 1960's and the films that fit that description were almost required viewing if you were an art student in the 70's and 80's - apart from the odd Francois Truffaut film like "L'Enfant Sauvage" seen on TV, I missed most of them and probably studiously avoided them at the time.

Over the course of early lockdown I found myself dipping into several French New Wave films by different directors, and after watching them it's easy to confuse films and directors since the sensibilities that underpin the movement are common to all of them - it's only over the course of several films by a particular director that you become aware of recurring themes that help to differentiate them - in it's beginnings however, it seems as if the films as a whole were representative of a group manifesto and the individuals involved less relevant, something not helped by the same actors moving from one film to another by different directors within the group.

"Elevator to The Gallows" is a nod to the "Film Noir" genre that was refined in Hollywood with a slew of films featuring double-crossing dames and hard-drinking, masculine men - here the concept has shifted to 60's Paris and the rather slight story of an employee murdering his gun-running boss after robbing him and planning an escape with his girlfriend, played by Jeanne Moreau, is inflated to epic proportions, but unlike a contemporary film that may feature car chases and explosions, it's downplayed and the focus shifted, to the extent that Malle focusses on Moreau wandering the streets of Paris at night in search of her lover due to the plan going awry.

The other notable feature of the film is the jazz score provided by Miles Davis, a masterstroke that establishes the era, tone and location (Davis lived and worked in Paris for a period of time and relished his acceptance there, as a refugee from segregation in the U.S) of the film in one go without ever really drifting too far from the Hollywood genre films that many of the French New Wave directors admired and imitated.

Visually, it could be argued that if Hollywood benefitted from European sensibilities like Expressionism, then in this film it had come home to roost in the French New Wave movement. 

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