Friday, August 03, 2007

Elevator to the Gallows

I had heard the praises of soundtrack and cinematography of this film before but watching it last night exceeded all my high expectations. Now I feel even worse for missing its big screen revival last year.

The basic story is a standard noir template - that of lovers conspiring to kill the husband only to find themselves trapped by the irony of a malignant fate which leads them to their inevitable doom (so elegantly captured by the title in this case.) The story has three separate sections which only occasionally overlap. (In fact the two lovers never meet at all in the film!) First the murderer who finds himself trapped in an elevator after the crime, then the woman, played by a stunning Jeanne Moureau, thinking herself abandoned by her lover walks on the night-time Parisian streets almost in a trance, talking to herself and overwhelmed with desire and grief, and finally a bunch of teenage delinquents who run off with the hero's car which adds to some suspense and plot confusion. This is perhaps the weakest section of the film. The petty criminals and their hyper-romanticism made me think of Godard but that only made it look ineffective. Ineffective also were half-hearted attempts to bring in politics - french involvement in Algeria and Vietnam and the German occupation in the second world war. I read some reviews which comapared the elevator section of the story to Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (on which Malle worked as an assistant director) which seemed to me an absurd overpraise.

The highlight of the film is of course the Jeanne Moreau section. Specially the way she is photographed only using the natural night time street lights. Every flicker of light, every contour of a shadow, and every expression on her face is sharply visible and it adds to the extraordinary atmosphere and mood. Add to that the iconic trumpet soundtrack by Miles Davis, underscoring her melancholy yearnings, it all makes an unforgettable impression. In fact I was thinking if Malle had made an entire film just out of Jeanne Moureau walking on champs elysees to the tunes of Miles Davis, it could have still been a riveting film. It might even have been a better film!

In the interviews on the DVD extras Moureau recalls how liberated she felt acting in this film because she didn't have to wear a thick make-up or act under the glare of excessive artificial lighting which was de rigeur at the time specially for her because of her unconventional looks. This approach of shooting on real street locations using only available lighting wasn't as common as it became later after the new wavers took on the reins. It is in fact also called a precursor of the new wave film movement. The dvd also contains lots of information about Miles Davis. As it turned out the film score is considered to be a very important work in the history and evolution of Miles Davis' work and in history of Jazz in general. Some of it didn't make much sense to me, illiterate as I am in these technical, theoretical matters but the sound of the music itself is heavenly.

The trailer here. Contains part of the soundtrack too:

No comments: