A debut feature usually gives a director the groundwork for their later craft. What they set out to do is optimistic, good-natured and usually too far-fetched for their own good. Optimism burns fast and bright, but there are those rare examples where a director starts off strong and keeps their consistency. Louis Malle began his career with Elevator to the Gallows, a strong statement to make, revolutionising how we look at film. His efforts are essential to reading these moments. A tale of deceit and greed spins rapidly and wildly out of control. Where else could it go but down?
That is the fabric of the thriller. A sleazy, self-invested individual makes choices that better their lives to the detriment of others, and, inevitably, it all comes tumbling down. Elevator to the Gallows sets the mould for such a series of events rather carefully. Dusting off the cobwebs of intricate, yet tried and tested motives, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) opens with a murder and soars from there. It is not the build-up to such a huge decision that takes up our time, but the fallout and knock-on effect of it. Killing the husband of his mistress is bound to tangle him up in trouble, but Malle does a great job of effectively showing how driven by passion Tavernier and Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) are.
Great chemistry is found between Moreau and Ronet, whose relationship is built more on their act of immoral choice than a love for one another. A layer of happenstance filters through, and much of the drama between the two is imposed on their relationship not through the actions of either, but through the impact it has on others. Malle is careful to construct a narrative that sees these characters at the throat of one another not because they offed a mutual acquaintance, but because it has caused more trouble than it was worth. Elevator to the Gallows takes these two characters as they devolve into primitive killers, rather than passionate people deploying their need for escape onto those that trap them in their humdrum lifestyle. Slip-ups and mishaps are the unravelling moments for these lovers, their amateurish offing of Carala’s husband and Tavernier’s boss makes for a delightfully well-thought series of events that lash out at these leading characters.
Upon its release in England, Elevator to the Gallows was retitled Lift to the Scaffold. Ridiculous and colloquial that may be, it does take some of the charm away from what Malle set out to do. Ground-breaking utilisations of sound and direction, even today they are impressive and valuable. We are not compelled to take the side of any one party within this debut feature. It is hard to care for characters that have killed an innocent man, but at the same time, Malle allows us to line up with their thought process. It was their only escape, and what they do is for the benefit of them. Malle presents this with flair and charisma, and at times almost makes a convincing argument for bumping off a boss and fleeing with his wife.