Based on a pulp-fiction novel, and treated to a Miles Davis score, this French film noir begins with a simple premise. A guy murders his boss, who is also his lover’s husband. But, as we might expect, things duly get complicated. For one thing, Julien (Maurice Ronet) gets stuck overnight in an elevator (thus the title) after he’s killed Simon (Jean Wall).
Then a couple of punks Lewis and Veronique (Georges Poujouly and York Burton) steal Julien’s car. Meanwhile, waiting patiently, Julien’s lover, Florence (Jeanne Moreau) gets arrested for vagrancy. More wheels come off the lovers’ plot when Louis and Veronique go on their own murderous crime spree, with Julien’s car, of course.
It’s been pointed out (notably in Roger Ebert’s 2005 review) that Julien’s night in the elevator has a strange influence on the plot. It provides an excellent alibi for the murders he’s accused of, but didn’t commit (the German tourists that the teens killed), but also fingers him for the murder he did commit, but isn’t suspected of.
We start with a steamy phone call between Florence and Julien. They plan their next hang out. At the office, Julien tells Genevieve (Micheline Bona) that he’s got to work late. Let’s see…in the file drawer: a gun, some rope, a grappling hook. No, Julien’s not a pirate, he’s a murderer. Sneaking along the window ledges, he gets into Simon’s suite.
After some business talk, Julien shoots him. Cunningly, he arranges the gun to simulate a suicide. Now he uses the grappling hook to swing back to his office. Looks good. The elevator guy gives him and Genevieve a ride down. Veronique, jabbering with Louis outside, sees Julien get into his car.
But he sees that he left the rope dangling outside. Viola! No sooner is back in the elevator than it just stops. Then, Louis notices that Julien left the car running, the keys in it. After some objection, Veronique hops in. Florence sees the car go by, thinking he’s with the Veronique, who sort of pops out the window.
Looking through the car’s pilfered glove box, they find a gun, and a “spy camera.” It’s pretty agonizing to watch Julien in his ‘prison cell.’ Meanwhile, Florence is pounding the streets, asking at his haunts if he’s been around recently. She really looks in her element; walking around ,warily, like a cat, but with a dazed impassive look on her face.
Out with the joyriders, they race a Mercedes 300SL, then bump into the car when it stops at a motel. Incredibly, the car’s German owner Horst Bencker and his wife Frieda (Ivan Petrovich and Elga Andersen) take it in stride. Horst even shows off the car’s engine to Louis; then orders champagne. The two couples eat and drink together. The old guy says “we Germans don’t like war.” When Louis protests, he explains “We’re just traveling salesmen!” That’s original.
Somehow, though, Horst figures out they’ve stolen Julien’s identity. On the rainy streets, still Florence prowls. In the elevator car, Julien’s out of smokes. More importantly, he finds an access door on the floor. He tries to jimmy down the cable. Just then, a watchman enters the building, and activates the elevator (!).
Before Julien’s crushed, the guy shuts it down again. Julien scrambles back into the car. Back to Florence: she muses “I lost you in the night, Julien.” At another bar, she meets a couple who’s seen him–but not that night.
Cut to the motel–Louis figures they should split before they get turned in. Louis gets the bright idea of stealing the Mercedes. Surprised by Horst, he shoots both of the Benckers.
Back home, the love-birds don’t want to face execution, so they decide to o.d. on pills. Well, that doesn’t work. Florence, who realizes that it was Veronique she saw in Julien’s car, does some sleuthing. She comes upon the woozy couple, letting them know that she’s figured out what they’ve been up to.
She calls the cops on them, but gets the brush-off. Instead the cops pick her up for ‘being out at 5 a.m. without your papers’. Once they discover that she’s a big-deal, i.e., ‘connected,’ they apologize profusely. Not before she gets “Carala is an arms dealer and an a**hole!” from her recent bar buddy.
Then, a detective asks her about Julien. They’re on to the tourists couple killing; obviously that crime has Julien’s name all over it. In fact, at the crime scene, the full-of-himself younger detective pretty much thinks the case is a wrap, and takes full credit for it.
Aha! A new day, there’s power on in elevator. But there’s police in the building too. Julien, undoubtedly relieved to get sprung, has to get out quick. He discovers that his car’s gone. Back up in the executive suite, the cops find Simon’s body. Meanwhile, not knowing that he’s wanted for the murders he doesn’t know about, Julien gets fingered by the cafe’s staff. Busted.
“Where were you Saturday night through Sunday morning?” He finally tells them. Now he really catches a break, as the cops say his boss committed suicide. But ‘stuck in an elevator?’ Yeah, right. Florence, remembering that it was Veronique that she saw in Julien’s car, finds out where the girl lives.
Well, Florence finds her alright; both of them–not dead, either. She knows by putting two and two together, that the young couple did in the Germans. Remember that ‘spy camera?’ Frida had taken some snapshots when they were partying. Louis has to find it, or he and Veronique may be French toast.
Well, he’s too late. The film developer is going through just those photos, with the detective lurking over his shoulder. Not only is Louis done for, but so is Julien. Because, earlier in the reel, they’re were cutesy pictures of him with Florence. Everyone’s French toast. The end.
This is a remarkable film. Everything’s of a piece, nothing’s out of place. That’s a mechanical description; but it shines thematically too. We manage to have four characters–the two couples–who are sympathetic even though they are all complicit in murders.
Florence is so blase that it’s hard to like her; but what we can appreciate is her love and devotion for Julien. It’s much easier to accept Veronique; although she went along ‘for the ride,’ literally, with Louis, she didn’t abet the murders. She didn’t want to steal Julien’s car in the first place. But being naive and easily led doesn’t excuse her completely.
Julien’s the most interesting character. We spend much of the time pretty much on his side. The elevator trauma doesn’t defeat him; he’s determined to get free, and his patience is rewarded. He murders for love–that seems a good deal less heinous than Louis’s motive. But does it matter?
Louis is more or less just a delinquent. He doesn’t know when to stop being stupid; he follows the path of least resistance, which paradoxically makes things more complicated and more dangerous. Still, it’s hard to escape the fact that there’s a decent got in there. When he’s in bed with Veronique, for example, he seems positively innocent.
The seamless way that the two plot strands are tied up at the end works nicely. The sudden jump in tension, as the photos literally come to life in the faces of the criminals, gives the denouement dramatic impact. Elevator To The Gallows is hard to beat for atmosphere, plot, pacing, cinematography, and especially, well-developed characters. 10/10.