Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.
About all I knew about Elevator to the Gallows going in was that Miles Davis did the music, and good Lord is that an understatement—he does this fucking music. Find me a musician who can set a mood faster and more exquisitely than the Prince of Darkness; his music is moody, punchy, and marvelously morose. Same goes for the picture, which is directed with fearless confidence by Louis Malle (all of 26 years old at the time, noted the 34-year-old film writer).
Malle’s film moves from scene to scene with effortless snap; the screenplay (which he adapted with Roger Nimier from Noel Calef’s novel) utilizes an unconventional—and altogether unpredictable—structure to keep the viewer tense and on edge. Thanks primarily to Davis’s score and Henri Decae’s moody, shadowy photography, many film historians see it as one of the last true film noir; I see it as a key transition film from noir to the French New Wave. Its influence on those early New Wave pictures (particularly Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player) is undeniable; Malle may have been more formal in his filmmaking, but Elevator to the Gallows shares a loose, fast sense of improvised morality. It’s a tough, nasty, sensational picture.