Elevator to the Gallows
In a bit of inspired programming, Landmark's Ken Cinema will showcase new digital restorations (thanks to Rialto Pictures) of two film noir classics beginning Friday, Sept. 16. Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol and Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows couldn't be more different stylistically—the former is politely bleak while the latter remains a jazzy, panicked rush of fate and comeuppance. Of course, thematic connections abound: Each functions as a brilliant case study in how prolonged dishonesty and delusion begets amazing bad luck.
Released in 1948, The Fallen Idol predates Reed's better-known masterpiece The Third Man by one year, but some of the same post-war anxieties about purpose and trust are apparent. The film takes place almost entirely inside the sprawling confines of London's French Embassy where a charismatic butler named Baines (Ralph Richardson) and his domineering wife (Sonia Dresdel) babysit the ambassador's young son, Phillipe (Bobby Henrey), while his father is away.
Events unfold primarily from the boy's perspective. Concerned with making paper airplanes and talking with his pet snake, Phillipe sees only incomplete flashes of the adult world. What he does witness seems contradictory and unimportant compared to child's play. Baines' sneaky rendezvous with another woman (Michelle Morgan) becomes an especially confusing point of contention. "There are lies and lies. Some lies are just kindness," Baines tells the lad, trying to rationalize his growing penchant for fibs.
Written by the great Graham Greene, the film builds up pressure subtly over time, creating an entire narrative around the cascading consequences of dishonesty. Labyrinthine interiors of the embassy contain endless hiding places flanked by massive glass windows. It's a layered and precipitous space for futile efforts of men and women trying desperately to cover their tracks. The Fallen Idol may end with a rush of confessions and closure, but the truth seems more obscured than ever before.
Infidelity and unrequited love also reside at the black heart of Elevator to the Gallows , Malle's gripping 1958 debut. In the opening scene, secret lovers Julien (Maurice Ronet) and Florence (Jeanne Moreau) speak cryptically over the phone. Beginning in close-up, the film cuts back and forth between the two characters trading sweet nothings before pulling out to respective wider angles. Even while expressing longing and hope, the camera tells us their permanent separation has already begun.
Sure enough, these two lovebirds never speak again. Julien murders Florence's husband and makes it look like suicide only to get trapped in the elevator during an attempt to recover some key incriminating evidence. This begins a domino effect of blunders that splinters off to include the exploits of a younger couple (played by Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin). Simple decisions like taking a joy ride or giving a false identity end up carrying weighty repercussions.
Elevator to the Gallows utilizes an effortlessly suave musical score by Miles Davis to conjure up an overall feeling of chaos that surrounds the characters' every move. Blistering trumpet notes rain down from the heavens as Florence wanders the streets of Paris suffocating in doubt over her lover's disappearance. Meanwhile, Julien must come to grips with the reality of his newly minted cell, left to wonder how his best-laid plans came crashing down so quickly.
Malle spins new webs around typical noir conventions, giving darker implications of fate and comeuppance a fresh verve. While both couples are haunted by similarly reckless mistakes and assumptions, their paths only cross briefly, permeating an endless feeling of isolation. The noose around their neck will never stop tightening, no matter how hard they try to wiggle free.
The Fallen Idol and Elevator to the Gallows are not screening as a typical double feature (separate tickets must be purchased) during their run at the Ken Cinema. Still, when viewed back-to-back they form a stirring indictment of human weakness at its lowest point. Watch and learn, people.