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Death Walk: Louis Malle’s ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (1958)

jeanne moreau

Louis Malle. The letters are languorous and they roll (make that, rrrollllll) off the tongue slow… and sexy … and, well, French. He’s a conundrum. A New Wave filmmaker very much apart from his fellow New Wave filmmakers. He was not one of the Cahiers, did not have a byline with Truffaut or Rivette. He did not particularly put stock in the Auteur theory and, to prove it, created a body of work that is extraordinarily diverse…perhaps stubbornly so.

For me, Malle is the cinematic equivalent of Rene Magritte. Magritte, refusing to surrender to definition, insisted that interpretation of his paintings was futile. Malle, likewise, alternated from the mainstream to the avant garde. Melodramatic? Sure, at times, if he needed to be. Inspired and deliriously visionary? Always.

Skirting, flirting with brilliance… perhaps Malle reached greatness by never overtly (or consciously) striving for it.

“Filmmakers don’t work for posterity,” he once wrote. “We create with celluloid and chemical pigments that … fade away. In 200 years there will be nothing left of our work but dust.”

With all due respect, Monsieur Malle, I hope to God you’re wrong.

Au Revoir les Enfants may be one of Malle’s most famous works, but my favorite is Elevator to the Gallows which, this day, gets a much anticipated blu-ray release from the Criterion Collction. Is it Noveau Vague? Noir?

Define it as you wish.

I don’t care.

I love it for many reasons–especially this.

It lasts only two minutes. No dialogue. Only the wistful strains of Miles Davis’ that embrace the beautiful, broody, late Jeanne Moreau. The lens focusing, blurring, sharpening. Here she wanders through the streets of Paris in a state of torture over her lover whom she believes has abandoned their plan to murder her husband for a happily-ever-after Life on the Lam.

It’s quiet.
It’s visceral.
It’s understated, underplayed, under-exposed.
It’s utterly…Louis Malle.


Elevator to the Gallows is available now on Blu-ray from Criterion for $23.96 USD. Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Interview from 2005 with actor Jeanne Moreau
  • Archival interviews with Moreau, director Louis Malle, actor Maurice Ronet, and original soundtrack session pianist René Urtreger
  • Footage of musician Miles Davis and Malle from the soundtrack recording session
  • Program from 2005 about the score, featuring jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis and critic Gary Giddins
  • Malle’s student film Crazeologie, featuring Charlie Parker’s song “Crazeology”
  • Trailers
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty, an interview with Malle, and a tribute by film producer Vincent Malle


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