It's clear from the opening minutes of "Elevator to the Gallows" why this 1957 film -- with it's ahead-of-its-time sense of style, its haunting-yet-cool score improvised by Miles Davis and its ironic, post-modern take on film noir -- became the progenitor of a whole New Wave in French cinema.
The uncomplicated yet ingeniously knotted plot takes a classic noir murder -- a man killing his lover's husband so they can be together -- strips away the genre clichés and infuses the film with the introspective moodiness, dynamic camerawork, unadorned location shots, and stylized but emotionally naked performances that would become a hallmark of the New Wave pictures that followed by Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Malle himself.
To put it in backwards-thinking terms, the 24-year-old Malle was the Quentin Tarantino of his day, giving French cinema a creative, instantly influential shot in the arm that spawned imitators and opened new horizons in directorial thinking.
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Handed his death sentence by his doctor, Romain chooses to let his cancer kill him rather than suffer through the indignities of debilitating treatment that even the doctor admits has only a five percent chance of working. But now what? Romain's first instinct is to push everyone away in order to protect them from the pain of watching him die. Always prickly with his family, who have struggled with his homosexuality, a family dinner he attends turns positively toxic when Romain insults his fragile mother (Marie Rivière) and father (Daniel Duval) and calls his sister (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) a bad mother. When his father drives him home, Romain asks him, "Do I frighten you?" Dad replies, "Yes, sometimes." Through all this, Romain has forgotten to tell them his big news.
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Gallows gives us a familiar setup: Woman (Jeanne Moreau) wants rich husband dead. Her lover Julien (Maurice Roget), who works for the man, murders him and makes it look like a suicide. But Julien leaves his rope outside his penthouse office window. With all his gear in the car, Julien heads back to retrieve the evidence, but security guards shut off the power in the elevator on the way down. Meanwhile, the car is stolen, the young couple who take it pretend they're Julien and wife, and subsequently kill a pair of German tourists. Julien is unknowingly framed for that crime, all while trying to escape the elevator he's stuck in.
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A shockingly lithe Robert De Niro stars as Monroe Stahr, a 1930s studio executive based on Irving Thalberg (a prolific producer who died at the age of 37, presumably from overwork). Stahr has lost loves in the past and a crushing chip on his shoulder in the present. He's a workhorse, but he wants something more out of life.
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A nearly identical story is done a bit more effectively in 1984's Tricheurs, but Jacques Demy's early film has some compelling moments, most notably a sudden and powerful ending that is wholly unexpected but is surprisingly satisfying. Bay of Angels ought to be a film school lesson in how to end a movie.
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In Vadim's rendition, Valmont (Gérard Philipe) is married to Juliette de Merteuil (Jeanne Moreau), and together they get their kicks by preying on the weaknesses of other high-society types. Juliette sets her sights on Cecile (Jeanne Valérie), soon to be married to someone who has crossed her in the past, and sets Vamont onto turning the innocent (but naive and manipulatable) girl into a sexpot-in-training. Meanwhile, Valmont falls in love with the genuinely virtuous Marianne (Annette Vadim), and a love-quadrangle soons spins out of control.
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Jules (Oskar Werner) is Austrian and Jim (Henri Serre) is French. They're best friends, and after their favorite gal, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), experiences flirtations with both men, she ends up married to Jules. The War comes and goes (they fight on opposite sides), and Jules and Jim rekindle their friendship. Visiting their rural home, though, Jim finds Jules and Catherine's marriage far from idyllic. Before long, Jules is begging Jim to take her -- anything to ensure her happiness.
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Ever the free spirit, Huppert's Frédérique has a vague Peter Pan syndrome crossed with exhibitionism. Since her youth (you can tell it's a flashback because she has really long hair), she's made a vow to always woo money out of men by playing neo-whore, but without having sex with them. Heading to Japan with a man (Daniel Olbrychski) she meets in a bowling alley (where else would she encounter him!?) is just this to the nth degree. There she encounters another man's wife (Jeanne Moreau), who tells her about satori, the "world of ecstasy."
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