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Elevator to the Eyes of Jeanne Moreau

I had intended to post this back during TCM’s tribute to Jeanne Moreau but I got distracted and ran something else that week instead.  Then I happened to re-watch Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows recently.  I’d seen it a long time ago, but it had commingled in my memory with some other films noir to the extent that it was almost like watching it for the first time, my memory of it was so scrambled and mistaken.  For a while, I was fixated on the clockwork precision of the plot, and how its narrative tricks reminded me of Steven Moffat or Christopher Nolan, but before long I realized that the real magic of this thriller isn’t its bleak vision or its ruthlessly cutting storytelling–it was the way these attributes set the stage for a particularly soulful pair of eyes.

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The victim: a rotten war profiteer, a monster of a man. His wife (Jeanne Moreau) and his trusted lieutenant (Julien Tavernier) have been carrying on a secret affair, and have concocted a plan for the perfect crime. Julian Tavernier has figured out a way to kill his boss and not only make it look like a suicide, but also secure for himself a clean alibi full of witnesses who can place him somewhere else at the time of death, just in case the suicide angle doesn’t convince the police.

But, as these things do, it all goes wrong—and Tavernier accidentally leaves behind a key piece of incriminating evidence and has to sneak back into the crime scene to retrieve it–getting trapped in an elevator on the way and finding himself imprisoned for the weekend.

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Meanwhile, in a second storyline neatly interlaced with the first, some wayward youths steal his car and his identity for a joyride.  This too goes wrong and results in the murders of two German tourists.  Tavernier eventually frees himself from the elevator only to find himself framed by circumstance for a wholly different crime.  And the cruel irony is that his only alibi for the crime he didn’t commit is to fess up to the one he did.

The structure is intricate; Each plotline mirrors the other. Julian Tavernier’s character is a once-bad man trying to redeem himself, through murder. He works out an intricate plan, but gets caught unprepared by an unexpected complication. His doppleganger is teenaged crook Georges Poujouly, whose complete lack of a plan is his undoing. He seethes with anger and disgust at the generation represented by Tavernier, but doesn’t seem to offer anything like an improvement over their moral choices.

Meanwhile, Moreau has her doppelgänger too–a gamine kid so lovestruck she commits to absurdly melodramatic plans like a suicide pact (which she isn’t smart enough to know how to accomplish) meanwhile Moreau and Julian end up in their own suicide pact, unwittingly entrapping each other.

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It is a wickedly effective puzzle box structure. The two plotlines interlock, and part of the pleasure of watching Louis Malle’s film noir unfold is watching the gears of the puzzle box click into place.

But then the other part of the pleasure of this thing is watching Jeanne Moreau’s performance. She spends most of the film moping around beautifully, which is a specialty of hers.  Few actresses could look so good looking so sad.

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This was not Moreau’s first film but it was her breakthrough role. Director Louis Malle understood some secret about how Jeanne worked, and he knew to let the camera linger on her expressive face. It is rare to find an actress outside the silent era so invested in having her face do all the work (Norma Desmond, eat your heart out).

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Yori Bertin plays Moreau’s teenage doppleganger, a lovestruck simpering girl unable to imagine her life outside the context of her man. When things go wrong for him, of course her mind jumps to suicide pact. Moreau by contrast is a world-weary woman whose eyes betray a life of paying for own bad choices. Like her younger version, she can’t conceive of her life outside of the context of her men, but in her case this seems less a character flaw born of youth and more a worldly understanding of what life really has in store for her.

She gets little dialogue, but needs little. Those eyes say it all.

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6 Responses Elevator to the Eyes of Jeanne Moreau
Posted By Raventhom : November 1, 2014 5:37 am

One of my personal top 100 of all time.

Posted By Richard Brandt : November 1, 2014 11:03 pm

And all set to a golden-era Miles Davis score.

Posted By johnnytoobad : November 2, 2014 4:52 am

Superb noir variant, awesome score, and tied for best Moreau showcase (to my tastes) with Demy’s “Bay of Angels” (like this, a top personal favorite of mine) — though of course “La Notte” is certainly up there, probably 3rd on the list if judged as a showcase for her wondrous beauty

Posted By Qalice : November 3, 2014 10:58 pm

Once again, the Morlocks introduce me to a film I’ve never heard of. Thank you!

Posted By The Roundup: November 3 | The Frame : November 4, 2014 6:08 am

[…] Elevator to the Eyes of Jeanne Moreau by David Kalat at Movie Morlocks […]

Posted By swac44 : November 4, 2014 12:16 pm

Just curious, is anyone else seeing the frame grabs in a squeezed aspect? When I click on individual photos, they appear in their proper ratio in a separate window, but in the blog itself they look a bit on the oblong side. Just wondering if I should change my settings somewhere along the line.

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