With so many fine films on Louis Malle's résumé, it's easy to forget that he broke cerise with Elevator to the Gallows, a compact little 1957 policier -- made even before the débuts of Godard and Truffaut -- that introduced us to Jeanne Moreau, the face that launched a cinema movement.
It's a tale of passion that revolves around Julien (Maurice Ronet), a veteran of two French colonial wars (Algeria and Indochina), who kills his corporate boss, whose wealthy family has profited from both of those wars. But Julien's motive isn't political: After the murder, he'll rendezvous with his lover, Florence (Moreau), who's also the boss' wife.
Of course, things go wrong, certainly the result of the black cat Julien sees on the railing of the office window -- some 15 floors up. In his haste, he leaves behind incriminating evidence. When he goes back to retrieve it and gets trapped in an elevator, a bubble-headed shop girl and her tough-guy boyfriend steal his snazzy convertible and take it for an all-night joy ride that ends in a double murder. Meanwhile, the waiting Florence sees Julien's car pass by, with a strange woman in the passenger seat, and so she fears he got cold feet and took up with someone else.
Malle opens and closes Elevator to the Gallows with an extreme close-up of Moreau's face, as if he knew he'd found his generation's iconic femme fatale. He films the story all over Paris, with some traveling shots and glimmering nightlife that presage the liberating cinema movement soon to follow. His story parallels two pairs of larcenous lovers -- one privileged, the other not -- and he brings each to an inevitably fated denouement as an original jazz score by Miles Davis winnows and wails through the action and suspense. (Shockingly, in this new print of the film, some of the subtitles are invisible white on white.)
This is all a tribute to American film noir (with a touch of Hitchcock), and the other New Wave artists would soon do the same. Malle's story, taken from a novel, piles on the ironies and coyly sends up the romantic tropes of the genre while also embracing it -- and making it gently French. There's even a touch of sex that was bold for its time: In bed, her bare back to the camera, the shop girl coos for her jittery, shirtless lover to join her.
After Elevator to the Gallows, Malle moved on to graver matters in films such as The Lovers (again with Moreau), Murmur of the Heart, The Fire Within (about an alcoholic), Lacombe Lucien and, in English, Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre, to name just a few. By those standards, a soupçon like Elevator to the Gallows is little more than a whisper. The New Wave began in fascination with the moods and mechanics of the thriller. Merci dieu, it didn't stay there for long. In French, with subtitles.