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.
Maurice Ronet plays Julien, a daring former paratrooper with a streak of subtle ruthlessness who is an executive in the company owned by his victim. He begins the film in an impassioned final phone call to Florence (Jeanne Moreau, in her mesmerizing debut), the beautiful young trophy wife who is not your usual femme fatale, before setting his foolproof plan in motion.
But after setting the stage of a fake suicide, one absent-minded slip dominos into disaster: Julien becomes trapped in his office building's elevator (the power has been shut off for the weekend), without an alibi, while a leather-jacketed juvenile delinquent and his girlfriend take his car for a joyride that ends in two more murders, with all the evidence pointing to Julien.
Meanwhile, Florence has spotted his car leaving town with the young punk's pretty girlfriend in the passenger seat and, assuming she's been betrayed, wanders the gritty, atmospheric streets of Paris all night in an engrossing haze of mistaken heartbreak.Ironic twists that are brilliant in their simplicity and apparent inevitability raise the stakes even further after the bodies are discovered, and Malle ties up his story in a surprisingly tight package that leaves only a few nitpicky questions unanswered -- most of them just doubts about the extreme post-murder absentmindedness that got Julien into this fix in the first place.
But such trifles are commonplace even in the best noir thrillers, and this one is so groundbreakingly atypical that nagging questions seem just part of the mood. Not unlike "Pulp Fiction," "Elevator to the Gallows" is a film in which one can feel the influence of reinvention vividly and spontaneously in every moment, whether or not you know anything about the movement in cinematic style it inspired.