The Importance Of The Automobile In Elevator To The Gallows

In the beginning of Louis Malle’s 1957 film, Elevator To The Gallows, we are led to believe that Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is the main protagonist.  While the murder of Simon Carala is in cooperation with Julien’s mistress and Simon’s wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau in her breakout role), we follow Julien up to and including the deed.  We think we will witness his escape, but in true film noir fashion we are shown how fate acts in Julien’s (literal) absence.

The cars used in Elevator To The Gallows say a lot about the characters who use them, and of the societies they are a product of.  The American convertible that would be the getaway car for Julien becomes the Bonnie & Clyde Death Car, at least in the imagination of semi-rebellious teen car thief Louis and his flower girl accomplice Veronique.  Florence’s “baby” turns out to be a Renault Dauphin, the French equivalent to the Volkswagen Beetle, which also turned out to be the French Ford Pinto.  And the unfortunate German tourists ride in a Mercedes 300 SL, the fastest car commercially available in the 1950’s, but in the end they wind up going nowhere fast.

Julien drives a Chevrolet, or at least would if he wasn’t stuck in that damn elevator shaft all night.  It seems to be a Chevrolet Deluxe, no later than 1952.  In his stead, the would be rebel Louis takes control with his girl Veronique.  The American car is perfect for both Julien and Louis, in that it exemplifies the type of personality they each have.

A career soldier before his career with Mssr. Carala, Tavernier is both a loner and a romantic.  He exemplifies the American noir archetype, and the fact that he drives an outdated American automobile is telling.  By 1957, gaudy colors and large fins decorated ornate American vehicles.  The Chevrolet Deluxe is beautiful in its way, but it feels dark and impenetrable, especially through the black and white cinematography.   Moreover, it feels in place with the French automobiles on the streets of Paris, much as how film noir found a second livelihood through its French admirers.

Louis wants what  Julien has but will not even try to earn it.  Julien may only vaguely look like a veteran, but he is a soldier in his mannerisms, demeanor, and his career.  Louis sees the car running and takes advantage but he can not comprehend the mechanisms plotting against him.  At least Julien sees the black cat on the window ledge.

It is an odd quirk that Jeanne Moreau and the Renault Dauphin intersect in this movie, because where they started and where they wound up are very different.  The Dauphin was a very popular automobile, but was prone to rust, especially during cold weather.  More than one automobile expert, including the guys from NPR’s “Car Talk,” consider the Dauphin to be one of the worst cars ever made.

Jeanne Moreau was a relative unknown when Elevator To The Gallows was made, although she had previously been in several movies, some of which were successful.  In the end, though, Elevator To The Gallows catapulted Moreau into French and then international stardom. Her stellar performance on Gallows led to her working on Malle’s The Lovers and Francois Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim.  When people think about mid-20th century France, they are more likely to remember the young woman waiting for her mister than the economy car her husband bought for her.

The Mercedes 300SL is an icon in its own right.  Its gullwing doors, incredible performance on and off the track, and sheer speed make the DeLorean from Back To The Future look like a really cheesy imitation.  The couple from Munich knows its power, but only so much as to deny Louis and Veronique what little power they have.  Louis and Veronique abandon the car in the middle of Paris, neither fully grapsing the power of the automobile they stole, nor acquiring the remorse which should follow after killing two people.

The automobiles the characters in Elevator The The Gallows drive, and how they drive them (or not) are a good barometer for how the characters behave throughout the film.  As Julien Tavernier awaits his fate in an elevator shaft, the world goes on without him, hurtling towards its destiny.

By Tom Keiser

Elevator to the Gallows screens this Friday
August 5th, 8:00PM
AxD Gallery / 265 South 10th Street / Philadelphia, PA
Like us on Facebook for additional information.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: