My Vote for the Great French Film Noir

CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”

Louis Malle’s 1957 “Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud” (“Elevator to the Gallows,” or as it was known in the U.S. “Frantic”) is another example of a perfect film where there are no missteps. It’s a simple enough tale of a perfect crime gone awry, but it’s shot through with black irony and topped off with a poetic and apt fade out. Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is an archetypal noir protagonist–a disillusioned soldier, once an officer, now reduced to acting as gopher and factotum to an obnoxious businessman who has made most of his money selling arms, but has the bad taste to mock Tavernier’s record as a loser in both Vietnam and North Africa. Tavernier chides his boss for insulting his “family business,” but the nasty Mr. Carala doesn’t care much for his opinion. He would perhaps respect him more if he knew that the rugged Tavernier was romancing the beautiful, bored Mrs. Carala behind his back. Using his Foreign Legion skills with firearms and rappelling, Tavernier and Florence (Jeanne Moreau) have worked out a fool-proof plan whereby he will scale the outside wall of Carala’s office building to enter the private suite unseen, then shoot Carala with his own gun and fix it to look like a suicide.  It all goes well until the building superintendent, anxious to lock up for the night, pushes Tavernier’s secretary to phone him despite his order not to be disturbed. Hearing the phone as he is rappelling back to his own floor, he rushes to answer it and in so doing, neglects to remove the telltale grappling hook and the rope leading from his office to that of the newly-deceased Carala.

The “first act” is now ended. The murder has gone off, but not without a glitch. No sooner is Tavernier safely out of the building and climbing into his big convertible when he sees the telltale rope swaying in the breeze. He must retrieve it. Returning to the building he takes the elevator to his office and becomes trapped when the building super, unaware that Tavernier had returned, cuts off the power, leaving Tavernier stranded in the dark between floors. So far so bad but there’s worse to come. A young juvenile delinquent type, perhaps jealous of the puppy-love attraction that his girlfriend has the dashing ex-captain and war-hero, decides to steal the man’s car, which he had left running in his haste to retrieve the rope. Three plot lines are now set in motion: Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique (Yori Bertin) go for a joy-ride in Tavernier’s car; Florence, seeing the car speed by with Veronique aboard, suspects that Tavernier has gotten cold feet and not killed her husband, leading her on a long nocturnal troll through the bars and bistros of Paris looking for Tavernier to get an explanation from him; Tavernier struggles to free himself from the elevator car that has become his prison. The story opens out beyond Paris and becomes a film noir when Louis, having stopped at a fancy modern motel decides to swap Tavernier’s convertible for a fancy Mercedes-Benz gull-wing sports car belonging to wealthy German tourists he and Veronique had chatted with. But Louis is caught in the act and he winds up killing the couple, using Tavernier’s pistol that he had left in the car. Before long the still-imprisoned Tavernier is on the front pages for the murder of the German tourists.

Florence’s part in the story ends initially when she is picked up during her nocturnal wandering and held by the vice squad. Profuse apologies are forthcoming when the police realize that she is the wife of the powerful Carala. But homicide inspector Cherier (Lino Ventura) investigating the tourist murders decides to question Mrs. Carala about her husband’s employee. Not yet knowing about the motel murders, she admits to having seen Tavernier drive by earlier that evening with a young woman. When Florence realizes she is being used to convict her lover, she swings into action and final act begins. Learning Veronique’s address from her employer, she finds the two young delinquents still groggy from a botched suicide attempt. But once Florence reveals that the police are seeking Tavernier for the killings, Louis is ecstatic. He will get off scot-free–except that Tavernier also had a camera in his car and he and Veronique took pictures at the motel with the couple they later murdered. He must secure those photos and destroy them. But he fails to realize that Florence has followed him to the photo shop. And Florence fails to realize that Cherier has followed her. The developed photos convict Louis and Veronique of the motel killings but they also reveal that Florence and Tavernier were lovers, giving them an excellent reason to kill her husband. The film ends with Florence ruefully viewing the fragile tokens of their love. Cherier promises her twenty years in prison and she muses that in the photos at least she and Tavernier will remain together, young and in love.

Henri Decae’s moody black-and-white photography perfectly captures the bygone Paris of the 1950s while Miles Davis’ mournful score–used to especially powerful effect during the scenes of Florence’s nocturnal wanderings–tell us everything we need to know about where the story is taking us. I don’t know how faithfully Noel Calef’s novel was adapted, but in the end it hardly matters.

As for why I consider this to be the best French noir of the 1950s and a finer example than “Rififi,” or “Grisbi,” or “Diabolique” or “The Wages of Fear,” I am drawn to the honesty of the characters. Tavernier is what he is, not a tarnished knight or a woebegone loser. He’s a guy who slips up because of a ringing telephone. Florence isn’t your traditional noir Black Widow. She’s in love with Tavernier, even when believes that he chickened out on the murder of Carala, she still must find him, must understand the reason why. Ironically the lovers are never joined except via a phone conversation at the start and in the developed photos at the close of the film. Louis and Veronique are no gun crazy kids or doomed lovers on the lam. Louis has a bad case of the James Dean wanna-bes and Veronique is too yielding, too pliant to slap some sense into him. When they believe that they’ll be hunted down and jailed for killing the tourists their solution is to plan a silly love-death via sleeping-pills. Florence upon discovering them makes the tart observation that sometimes you can be saved by your own stupidity.

But no one will be saved here. There is an invisible web of fatality spun out, from that opening hurried phone call foretelling a man’s death through to the impersonal, inexorable developing of the film in Tavernier’s fancy mini-camera. For just as the first images will doom Louis and Veronique, the final ones will link Florence and Tavernier to her husband’s death. All that, and Miles Davis’ bluesy trumpet too! What more do you want?

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