Vintage Movies: “Elevator To The Gallows”

MAGNET contributing writer Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 500 titles—from the silent era through the ’00s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.


Elevator To The Gallows (1957, 92 minutes)

There’s a glaring typo on the original Columbia CD version of Miles Davis’ groundbreaking 1958 album Milestones that might have driven the jazz trumpet legend to the corner of Assault and Battery streets. They list the lead-off track as “Dr. Jekyll” instead of by its real title, “Dr. Jackle,” a play on words from a tune originally written by alto-sax hero Jackie McLean. Nothing to do with Robert Louis Stevenson here, guys, sorry.

Davis’ edgy, bittersweet post-bebop—cut on a European tour accompanied by French tenor saxman Barney Wilen, pianist Rene Urtreger and American ex-pat drummer Kenny Clarke—plays a large part in setting the mood of 1957 French thriller Elevator To The Gallows. The debut feature by Louis Malle finds Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a former paratrooper, lured into a plot to kill the husband of his girlfriend Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau). The victim also happens to be Tavernier’s boss.

“Without your voice I’d be lost in a world of silence,” says Tavernier to Florence over the phone. “We’ll be free at last, Julien,” she says encouragingly, her eyes all aglow. “You know I’ll be right there with you,” she murmurs.” Of course, she won’t be right there with him. Tavernier will take all the risk alone in this daring scheme, something he’s planned well in advance.

He opens his desk and pulls on a pair of thin gloves, places a large pistol shaped like a German Luger into his jacket pocket and shoulders a stout rope with a grappling hook fixed to one end. He steps outside the window of his office onto a wide landing that surrounds his entire floor and glances down at the bustling city life, at least 10 stories below. Convinced no one will notice, he tosses the hooked end of the rope over the wall of the landing directly above his, then effortlessly rappels to the next floor with the grace of a cat.

Monsieur Carala is so absorbed in the details of his phone conversation that he barely notices Tavernier enter his office, offering a thin business folder detailing Project Pipeline to his boss. Thumbing quickly through the document, Carala finally looks up at his employee to find a pistol aimed directly at his head. “Is this some kind of joke?” he asks calmly. “It’s not a joke? What do you want, money?” Fully in control, he adds, “You don’t scare me.” Carala seems somewhat more alarmed as he utters his final words. “Who gave you my gun?” he demands. Tavernier makes certain he’s left no fingerprints as he places the murder weapon in the dead man’s right hand. He strolls out of his boss’s office and presses the down button of the elevator to meet his lover to let her know his mission has been accomplished.