Elevator to the Gallows
For his feature debut, twenty-four-year-old Louis Malle brought together a mesmerizing performance by Jeanne Moreau, evocative cinematography by Henri Decaë, and a now legendary jazz score by Miles Davis. Taking place over the course of one restless Paris night, Malle’s richly atmospheric crime thriller stars Moreau and Maurice Ronet as star-crossed lovers whose plan to murder her husband (his boss) goes awry, setting off a chain of events that seals their fate. A career touchstone for its director and female star, Elevator to the Gallows was an astonishing beginning to Malle’s eclectic body of work, and it established Moreau as one of the most captivating actors to ever grace the screen.
Louis Malle’s first feature-length film, Elevator to the Gallows, receives a lovely new Blu-ray upgrade from the Criterion Collection, making using of a recent 4K restoration, scanned from the 35mm original camera negative. It is presented here with 1080p/24hz high-definition encode on a dual-layer disc in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.66:1.
Similar to other upgrades recently there wasn’t a lot to fault Criterion’s original DVD edition for: it was sharp, cleaned up pretty nicely, and upscaled it didn’t look half bad. Compression is still evident (a limitation of the format naturally) but again, if it’s what I would be stuck with until my dying day, I couldn’t complain all that much.
Still, like other recent upgrades, this new edition, sporting that new restoration, still manages to offer a clear and substantial upgrade over the DVD. It substantially sharper with a greater amount of detail in every frame, rendering grain in a far cleaner manner and looking more like a projected film in the process. Contrast and tonal shifts are also much cleaner and smoother in comparison, and black levels look really astounding, which leads to fantastic shadow details.
The restoration work has also been aggressive. The Criterion DVD still showed a handful of problems and a bit of a flicker in places, but this presentation is near-pristine, about as smooth and clean as one could possibly hope for the film. It looks spectacular in the end, and even if you already own the old DVD this upgrade is worth considering the Blu-ray for alone.
The lossless 1.0 PCM mono track sounds to have been cleaned up a bit in comparison to the DVD’s Dolby Digital track but it’s still fairly flat and the music can be a bit edgy. Still fine, though.
Supplements appear to be the same between this new edition and the old 2-disc DVD. Again this release starts off with a 17-minute interview with director Louis Malle, recorded in 1975 for a French Canadian television program called Let’s Talk Cinema, while Malle was working on Black Moon. Though there is a general conversation about his work (including his time with Jacques Cousteau and how he now feels about the themes he tackled in those early films) it does end up spending a significant amount of time on Malle’s debut film. He suggests the film was a response to the political climate of the time, though the two mention the piastres scandal as being an influence but I admit to not seeing a direct correlation (this isn’t really expanded upon) other than maybe it was just another government abuse so I’m going to put it down to “you had to be there.”
It’s a fine enough interview though I caught myself enjoying the next few more, which come off a bit less stuffy. There are a couple featuring Jeanne Moreau, including an 11-minute one from the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, where she appears with Malle to talk about the film, covering topics from her casting to the film’s score and how it fits into the New Wave. A 2005 interview, recorded for the original Criterion DVD, features the actor talking a bit more in-depth about making the film, working with Malle, the time period and how it plays into the themes presented within the film, and how it aided her career.
Criterion also digs up a rather wonderful interview with actor Maurice Ronet, recorded for French television in 1957. The actor talks about his label in being the “romantic lead” and talks a bit about why American actors and European actors differ so much in style, attributing it (a bit at least) to the Actor’s Studio in the States and a more “assembly line” nature. It’s only 4-minutes in length but ends up being one of the more enjoyable features on here.
Criterion then provides a collection of features on the Mile Davis score, starting with footage from the recording session. This 6-minute clip was filmed for a television program and features footage of Davis and his band in a studio recording the score for the film while Malle, sitting in the booth, explains to the interviewer that the score is being improvised and then explaining why he decided to go this route.
Following that are then two sets of interviews focusing on the score and then Davis’ time in Paris. Piano player René Urtreger first talks about meeting Davis in Paris and how Davis and the band first came to meet Malle. He then continues on about a screening of the film they were given and the ideas thrown around about the score before talking about specific scenes and how a lot of elements were actually improvised on the spot.
The next features is a sort-of crash course Miles Davis featuring film and music critic Gary Giddens and trumpeter John Faddis. Between the two they cover Davis’ early career and his eventual move to Europe, something a lot of jazz musicians did at the time (Europe being a place a lot jazz musicians moved to because it was less overtly racist. The two also talk about the score, its importance, and how it appropriately evokes mood. Both are passionate about the subject and keep the feature fairly energized, making it a brisk but very rich 35-minutes.
We then yet again get a student film from Malle, Crazeologie, a reference to Charlie Parker song “Crazeology” which makes an appearance. The rather frantic 6-minute film provides, at first, the semblance of a plot (two friends show up another’s apartment looking for the one individual’s sister) but goes off the rails from there. Influenced by the “theater of the absurd” it’s indeed an odd film, though quite energetic and assured for a student film.
Two trailers are then included: an original one touting this as the next great French film, and then a 2005 rerelease trailer, which actually makes a note of Davis’s score (the original one doesn’t interestingly enough.
The booklet has been completely ported over from the old DVD edition, first featuring Terrence Rafferty’s essay on the film and its connection to the New Wave, which is then followed by a reprint of an interview with Malle, the director going over the genesis of the project with more detail about adapting it from a (apparently not all that good) novel. It then again closes with a quick note by the director’s brother Vincent Malle, recalling that period and the film's release. It has neem reprinted from a 2005 issue of FLM Magazine.
Sadly Criterion hasn’t added anything new (no commentary, no new academic features specific to the film itself) but the material carried over still holds up quite strong, and the features about Davis and the film’s score are strong on their own.
The release sports a really strong upgrade image wise in comparison to the DVD, though doesn’t upgrade the features at all. At the very least, though, the material still holds up well.