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Walking Through “Elevator to the Gallows”

Walking Through “Elevator to the Gallows”

April 2024

It is springtime in Paris. I am in Paris. I know now that this, what I am experiencing, is the perfect combination of a time and a place, a season and a city. It rains a lot, but only a little. The sun is chilly but the wind is warm. At lunchtime, I walk to the Place Dauphine, a shady courtyard on the west side of the Île de la Cité, the island in the Siene that bears up Notre Dame, listening to the hurried French of elderly couples. In the evenings, I stroll through the Latin Quarter, weaving around clusters of American students on study-abroad.

I’m staying with a friend in an apartment in the 20th arrondissement, near Père Lachaise, the old cemetery. In a few days, I’ll be by myself in a hotel in the 16th, in Trocadero, across the river from the Eiffel Tower. I’m fond of the Metro, and the bus, but I’ll spend most of my time in Paris walking from neighborhood to neighborhood. I like to climb the hills, wander through the streets, feel the contours and furrows of the city in the soles of my feet.

29 Rue de Courcelles. Paris 8.

I don’t walk near there, but it’s on my list of places to visit, if I can find the time. I don’t really spend much time in the 8th, partially because it’s crowded. I grew up in New York City, and it’s symptomatic of this geographic upbringing to develop a sort of psychosomatic skin allergy to throngs. I tend to shiver a lot in crowds. So, I avoid the Champs-Élysées and the Arc du Triomphe, shimmy north whenever I hit the Place de la Concorde. I never make it to Rue de Courcelles, even though I want to. Or I think I want to. In a way, I know that spot in Paris rather well already; it’s the setting for a favorite film, Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud (1958). The film was re-titled Frantic for select audiences but is better known now with the title Elevator to the Gallows. It is a crisp, bleak, dreary film noir, black and white and morose, but also heartbreaking and gutting.

I saw Elevator to the Gallows in college, homework for a course titled “Paris in Film,” a class whose enrollees, I imagine, expected a rosier overall patina in the assigned films. Instead, we watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Alain Corneau’s Serie Noire (1979), Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Michael Haneke’s Code Inconnu (2000). The happiest film we watched was Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962).

I think about this course, and Elevator to the Gallows, as I walk around Paris. I don’t want to, but I can’t help it. Perhaps there’s a simple reason (one character traverses the city on foot in most of her scenes). Perhaps I’m remembering it because it was the first time I was exposed to Paris as a city, rather than as a dream.

The film tells the story of Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a cool-headed businessmen who plans and executes the perfect murder. After pretending to leave for the day and then climbing back up into the building (on the outside), he sneaks back in, and  kills his boss, Simon Carala (Jean Wall). See, Julien and Simon’s wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau), are in love and they want Simon out of the way. But then, after Julien kills Simon, he gets trapped in an elevator on his way out of the building.

Once planning to rendezvous with the newly widowed Florence, Julien now must spend the majority of the film desperately trying to free himself. After waiting a long while, Florence assumes she has been stood up by her lover and falls into a depressed stupor. She wanders through the city as a score from Miles Davis cries, non-diegetically, around her. But that’s not all. A young working-class couple, Veronique (Yori Bertin) and Louis (Georges Poujouly), steal Julien’s expensive car, which lies abandoned on the street. Because he leaves his identification in the car, the kids also steal his identity, spiriting away to a nearby motel and checking in under Julien’s name. There, they commit a terrible crime that ultimately leads the police back to the entrapped Julien, still frozen in his escape from the original murder.

In Elevator to the Gallows, Malle illustrates that, regardless of one’s initial (physical and financial) place in society, personal misery is rampant and leads to selfishness, which in turn leads to cruelty. Moreover, the film says, it is impossible for anyone to truly escape who they are—a theme Malle particularly emphasizes by trapping his transgressors in torturous solitude across the isobaric regions of the city.

The film takes place within three different spaces (three neighborhoods, three sets), but all of these characters are united by the single crime perpetrated by Julien against his innocent boss. Julien’s action, therefore, begins a chain-reaction of anguish that ripples through various degrees of people who know him, but also through various degrees of the city. Moreover, as the individuals least involved, Veronique and Louis attempt to get farther and farther away from Julien, by moving to the peripheries of Paris; their desperation to abandon their former lives grows stronger until they, in turn, commit a crime to do so—a crime that is on par with the murder Julien had committed in Paris. Therefore, Paris is symbolically a uniting force—a haunting being capable of reaching out to its exiting parts and drawing them back in, forcing them to reconcile with their both their past selves and the origin of their circumstance.

Film noir is about solitude, bleakness… reaching for someone and failing to hold on, solving a mystery and finding out that the answer means nothing. It is often about the relationship between a solitary figure and a single, large impersonal environment. Usually a city. Sometimes, even Paris. In noir, despite traversing a place from end to end, it is often impossible to extricate oneself from certain troubles and futile to attempt to move to a better place; ultimately, attempting either thing can only contribute to more destruction in an otherwise depraved world.

Though they are equally just as lost, the young lovers Veronique and Louis are separated from the couple Florence and Julien by miles of pavement. However, Veronique and Louis are able to suffer together, while Florence and Julien are not. They are both in the center of Paris—but frustrated Julien is stuck in a fancy office building, while disheartened Florence wanders the Champs-Élysées. They both do not know where the other is, even though they are close; they are divided only by vertical structures, as opposed to horizontal planes. However, even before they are separated by Julien’s detainment, Paris separates them; in fact, they are never in a scene together. The film opens on a phone conversation between the lovers, and there are numerous crosscuts between close-up shots of their faces as they clutch the phone receivers and murmur adorations to one another. The intrusiveness of this shot removes the concept of “setting,” so the lovers aren’t positioned in the physical city of Paris so much as in their own, un-geographical, all-consuming world. However, when they hang up, the camera pulls back, and captures Julien setting down the receiver on a desk while zooming out to reveal that he has been standing in a high office in a building in the financial center of Paris. Only after their phone conversation ends, do the burdens of physical spaces (as opposed to emotional ones)—namely the realistic city of Paris—become relevant to the characters, and the story.

This crosscutting technique, featuring shots of the lovers from different angles, also creates the illusion that they are looking at one another, or are at least near one another, when they are, in fact, vastly separated by the same Parisian structures that will divide them when they are detached from one another. However, when they are truly separated, they are still united by similar editing—scenes of Julien’s escape attempts from the elevator are often followed by shots of the miserable Florence, dolefully wandering around the streets of Paris; they are united with one another in and out of contact. In addition, though Florence has the ability to walk wherever she wants, she is just as trapped as Julien, who cannot extricate himself from his metal prison. She does not know what to do or where to go, as she does not know where her lover is or what has happened to her husband, so the wide streets of the Rue des Champs-Élysées serve as a contrast to her worried and despondent psyche. Though she is mobile, and he is not, they are equally held captive by Paris for what they have conspired to do.

They are further cornered by the city when their ability to see structures diminishes. As Florence walks through Paris, night begins to fall, and soon, she is barely lit among the shadows. The severe use of chiaroscuro by cinematographer Henri Decaë turns her into a ghostly figure, almost glowing and gliding. Similarly, Julien, stuck in a metal box after hours in an office building, is shrouded in darkness as well, and uses a lit cigarette lighter to provide a little illumination. This same chiaroscuro unites them in darkness, but also melts the barriers presented by Paris and presents a tragic, romantic view of their relationship—they are two halves (quite literally, because their dark clothing and the scant lighting only illuminates half their bodies) searching space for completion in one another. Here, the lighting not only gets darker, but the camera also captures more close-ups of her troubled face, and she begins to walk into buildings (such as a café, and the police station); the highly characteristic Paris begins to disappear from behind her, and soon, she is merely a miserable figure wandering in a city. Similarly, in the dark of his elevator, it is impossible to tell that Julien is in Paris, or, rather, that he is anywhere near Florence. Therefore, although Paris is an impenetrable urban obstacle course for the lovers during the day, it is an unrecognizable purgatory by night.

Malle stresses Paris as a presiding force that spatially manipulates transgressors and traps them for their crimes until their actions are brought to light. He uses the genre’s preoccupation with solitary location to illuminate the pessimistic themes of the fruitlessness of mobility to better states, and the destruction caused by those who dare to challenge the order of life, blowing up and scaling down Paris to show the chain reaction of cruelty brought on by human selfishness, explaining that any amount of freedom within a physical space does not represent freedom from a physical space.

Anyway, I think about this as I walk home from the Eiffel Tower, as it glitters behind me in the dark.