Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Directed by Louis Malle


In Elevator to the Gallows, Julien, the protagonist, spends almost the entire film stuck in an elevator.  It’s a jarring move for the story because everything looks like it’s just getting started.  Really, the first sequence of the film, leading to Julien Tavernier’s temporary imprisonment, feels like it should be the end of a film.  Julien confronts his boss, Mr. Carala, before killing him.  This interaction feels like it has been built up to, but we only just met these characters.

Julien, a former soldier, chides his boss for making money off of the war (Indochina and Algiers), and it seems like the boss’ murder is about conflicting ideologies.  The boss doesn’t seem like a great man, and Julien appears to think he’s doing the right thing.

Then he calls Florence and confirms the hit.  That’s when we learn that Florence was Mr. Carala’s wife and is Julien’s mistress.  This puts the murder in a new context.

When Julien returns to his car, he realizes he left the rope he used to climb a floor in his building on the railing.  He leaves his car running and goes to fetch it, and that’s when he gets stuck in the elevator as everyone leaves the office and the power is shut down.

Louis, a young petty criminal, decides to steal Julien’s car, and he brings his girlfriend along with him for their joyride.  They drive by a cafe where Florence waits for Julien.  She recognizes the car and sees only the girl in the passenger seat.  Florence takes this to mean that Julien has left her behind and found a new woman.  Like Julien, Florence begins her own exile, but this occurs as she wanders the streets of Paris all night, alone.  She wonders about Julien, trying to justify his behavior and also calling him a coward.

So while those two characters do basically nothing, Louis and his girlfriend, Veronique, drive the story forward.  Louis is young, cocky and defensive.  He gets into a freeway race with a Mercedes, and both of them pull up at the same motel.  While Louis is brash, the other driver, a German man, is relaxed.  The German and his wife invite Louis and Veronique to dine and drink in their suite.  Nervous about getting found out for the car theft, Veronique tells them that they are Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier.

Later that night, Louis tells Veronique that they should get out of there, but instead of taking Julien’s car, he steals the German’s Mercedes.  In doing so, he shoots the German couple dead using Julien’s gun.

They flee back to Paris and try to kill themselves through a drug overdose.

Julien finally escapes the elevator unnoticed, still trying to avoid any connection to his boss’ death which was framed as a suicide.  By this point, the police have already determined Julien to be the killer of the German couple at the motel, and his face is plastered all over the newspaper.  The police quickly arrest him and explain that every sign points to him.

Florence figures out that the flower girl is connected to the crime, and she tracks down the couple who have not died, despite their best wishes.  Florence tells the couple to stay in their apartment so she can pin the murder on them, clearing Julien’s name, but Louis realizes there is photographic evidence of their night with the Germans (from a camera Veronique found in Julien’s car), so he sets out to the motel to get it back.

Florence follows him, and when they get there the photos have been developed.  The detective is already there, and he arrests Louis.  He shows Florence that there are also photos of her and Julien.  He is absolved of the German couples’ murder, but both he and her are arrested for the murder of Mr. Carala.  The detective explains that Julien would have been given the death penalty for the murder of the German couple, but because of his role in Mr. Carala’s murder, he’ll only be sentenced to ten years and probably only serve five.  Florence, it turns out, will be put away for much longer because she is the archetype of the plan.

Florence becomes despondent, kind of like she was at the beginning of the film and I guess the whole film, as she realizes that she cannot be with Julien.  So just like the bulk of the film, when she believes he has run off without her, she imagines a future in which he will have a life without her.

This movie is ridiculous, but it’s great.  It’s kind of incredible that the two main characters are separated from each other the entire film and spend most of their time doing next to nothing, and yet it feels like a lot happens.  Most of this is thanks to the mistakes of the young lovers.  They’re imagines are wild, resulting in an intended simultaneous suicide, like Romeo and Juliet.  They are out of touch with the world, but that’s almost entirely due to age-induced naivete.

Florence and Julien similarly screw up their own lives, but they don’t have the same excuse.  They are adults, but Florence, the instigator of the murder plot, driven by quite the romantic notion of her relationship with Julien.  We know next to nothing about their relationship, so we just trust her when she describes her love for Julien.  But this supposed love is probably heavily influenced by a shared hatred of Mr. Carala.  He’s an arms dealer, and hardly a stand up guy.  When Julien murders him, he doesn’t mention his affair, but he clearly wants to hurt the man before he kills him.  He does this by criticizing Mr. Carala’s financial gains from war, so it’s clear this disgust is a driving force for him.

In fact, there are many mentions of war, namely Indochina and Algiers.  The whole thing feels like a metaphor, but I don’t know of what.  Mr. Carala’s murder is justified, in the eyes of Julien, because Mr. Carala’s business dealings have killed thousands of people.  Louis seems to scoff at Julien’s war experience when Veronique speaks of him glowingly, but when he kills the Germans, he has a look of utter disbelief on his face.

Maybe there’s some connection to the horrors of war, death, etc.  Maybe not.  The film doesn’t let anyone off the hook.  Mr. Carala is killed, and everyone else goes to prison.  They’re all sloppy, and they all suffer for it.

The entire film feels like a eulogy, but I’m not sure what for.  Louis frets about his future going up in flames after killing the German couple, but he worries about himself, not for Veronique or their relationship.  Neither Louis nor Veronique think she will be convicted of the crime, and yet she suggests they commit suicide together.  She is all about them while he is all about himself.

Florence is all about herself, despite appearing to be hopelessly in love with Julien.  Her proclamations of love at the end of the film and again at the end, showcase her face in extreme close ups.  It’s all about her.  She’s the one who engineered the plot to murder her husband, and Julien carries it out, though he does so for his own reasons (Mr. Carala’s unfair profiting off of a war Julien saw first hand).  Julien is manipulated by Florence, and he never demonstrates any clear passion for her, which makes sense given that he’s trapped in an elevator almost the entire time, but it doesn’t match with her extreme passion for him.

So I guess it’s important that the film begin and end with close ups of Florence’s longing eyes.  Her longing might never go away.  It seems she was unhappy in her marriage and is unhappy this entire time.  This whole thing goes wrong because of the plan she put in motion, yet we never completely realize this until the end.  It’s not immediately clear that she’s the one who decided her husband should be killed.  When Julien shoots him, it seems like he might have been acting on his own.

The film begins with Florence as a harmless, fragile character and ends with the confirmation that she’s the mastermind of this disaster, yet she doesn’t see it that way.  She romanticizes her life in a way to overlook the crimes she has committed, and when the story ends she continues romanticizing.

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