Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows while visually interesting is an ugly tale. Great title though.
The scenario is deftly established in the first few scenes. Two middle-class lovers, Florence and Julien, on the verge of middle-age, whisper sweet nothings over the phone in the late afternoon and when she hangs up, he commences to put into action their pact to murder her older husband, Simon Carala, who is also Julien’s boss. It is established before the crime that the boss is a jerk in a scene with a telephonist who places a call through to Carala, and where an electric pencil-sharpener serves to intimate the banality of office work.
Julien is ex-army and has no difficulty scaling a rope secured by a grappling hook outside the office building in broad daylight (!) to Carala’s office on the floor above. Just before Julien shoots Carala dead with Carala’s own gun making it look like suicide, we learn that Carala is an arms dealer when Julien lectures him on the infamy of his trade! There disturbingly is no irony here or in the rest of the film after we learn that Julien is well-rewarded for his work, and that Florence enjoys the life-style of a Parisian bourgeois. In Hitchcock fashion, Julien slips up when he leaves the rope hanging from the balcony-rail outside the dead guy’s office. This feau pax is the trigger for what ensues: down-hill all the way. We get to see two more senseless murders, the attempted double-suicide of teenage lovers, and the use of a reverse McGuffin – a miniature ‘spy’ camera. All is elegantly woven with a tres-cool Jazz score composed and performed by Miles Davis.
Between the opening crime and the denouement we endure interminable scenes of a rather frumpish Florence (played a la minimalist by Jeanne Moreau) walking the streets of Paris from one dive to another looking for her lost lover. The amour fou is established on her side only. For most of the ‘action’ Julien is way-laid in a conveyance. A second story of two juveniles on a joy-ride in a stolen-car which spirals into hell is skillfully merged with the main arc.
Ultimately though the whole affair is no more than chic nihilism packaged as a noir take on romantic obsession and teenage angst.