Monday, May 11, 2015

Steve’s Selections #5 – Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

I find myself in new territory here.  My site has been geared towards writing full reviews of films I would recommend to others.  I knew that one of the things that might happen when Steve and I recommended 12 films to the other to review during the coming year is I might encounter one I would not recommend.  I promised myself that if it happened I would still write a full review to show respect for Steve and for the process.  The problem I am now faced with is how do I write a review of a movie that I felt was just okay?  Do I still write it like any other?  Do I focus on the flaws that kept me from liking it more?  Do I recommend it anyway, since it's close (only a half star away)?  Do I write an analysis of my own reaction and what it might mean about me?  (Or is that too much “navel gazing”?)

Making this even more difficult is I am well into the minority when it comes to this film.  On IMDB it’s rated a solid 8.0.  On Letterboxd four stars out of five is far and away the most popular rating.  It’s been a couple of hours since I got done watching it.  I’ve read all the posts on IMDB for it.  I’ve read about a hundred reviews on Letterboxd, where only a handful of people have rated it 2.5 stars (the equivalent of “just okay” for me).

I’ve spent all that time because I was searching for what others saw in this that I missed.  My conclusion is that other than one thing, I saw everything that others did.  And the one I missed is irrelevant to me because I’m not a student of film: Elevator to the Gallows is credited with being a bridge between conventional films and the French New Wave that would soon arrive.  Many people have rated it highly purely because of that.

To say that’s the only reason for the high ratings would be unfair to the movie, though.  I’ve seen several people say that not only do they think it’s a great movie, they feel it’s the best noir they have ever watched.  I have seen some people admit that the bizarre coincidences and all the goofs bothered them, but then they conclude by saying they loved the movie anyway.

The only thing I can offer to even marginally bolster my opinion that it’s not a masterpiece is that across the several dozen lists of great films that I have encountered and saved, not a single one of them includes Elevator to the Gallows.  That’s everything from award-winning films, to films selected by the masses, to films selected by professional critics.

Let me start with what I did like and go from there.  First, the jazz score is fantastic.  I found out afterwards that it was from Miles Davis and he recorded it in a single night while just sitting in a studio and improvising.  Second, the black and white cinematography is crisp and clean.  I may have watched a restored copy of it.  Lighting is important in a noir and this one does a good job with it.

Next are the things I was ambivalent on.  The performances were serviceable, but nothing that made me sit up and take notice.  Jeanne Moreau is the only big name among the cast.  She spends a large chunk of the movie looking pensive.  She looks fantastic while doing it (despite walking around in the rain all night – more on that next.)

Finally, I don’t want to get into a litany of the things that kept me from being able to recommend this film, so I will mostly stay at a general level and give an example.  A key component of enjoying a movie for me is my suspension of disbelief.  I have to forget I am watching a movie and get caught up in the story.  Unfortunately, just as I would be getting into it, something would happen on screen that would just jerk me back to reality.  I’m not the kind of person who will notice if the crew can be seen in a reflection, or that will notice a boom mike dipping into frame for a split second.  However, if they repeatedly show a woman walking around in the rain getting soaked, yet every single time she walks inside she is completely dry with immaculate hair and clothing it practically becomes a joke.  One person’s post on IMDB tried to explain away all the goofs as being intentionally humorous; that this film is actually a dark comedy.  I’m not sure I buy that.

While spending a couple of hours analyzing my reactions to this movie I came to the conclusion that because it was noir I was holding it to a higher standard than I would, say, an action film.  The story has an insanely improbable sequence of events that occurs to get to the conclusion.  While watching it they kept coming and the coincidences kept taking me out of the film.  If I had seen similar things happening in an action movie, though, I think I might have just shrugged them off as “it’s only an action film”.

This leads me to something I’ve written several times in the past: my expectations for a movie can have a large impact on my perception of it.  Take District 9, for example.  Critics praised it to high heaven as a new kind of science fiction story, original, visionary, etc.  I really got geared up to watch it, but when I did I saw a movie whose first third was 1988’s Alien Nation, whose second third was the 1986 remake of The Fly, and whose final third was 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part 2.  Here’s the thing: if I had heard nothing about District 9 before seeing it I think I would have felt it was an above average movie.  (I liked all three of those films it copied from.)  But having had my expectations set too high, I ended up being disappointed by it.

I think I went into Elevator to the Gallows with my expectations set too high because of the genre, possibly also because it was from director Louis Malle, and possibly because I knew Steve liked it, and while we’ve had our disagreements on films, I think that more often than not we tend to like the same ones.  We certainly didn’t recommend films we disliked to each other.

So I’m sorry, Steve.  This movie just didn’t resonate with me like it did for most people.  I have to admit I’m surprised.  I tend to like noir as a genre.  I thought of the 12 movies you picked for me to watch it would be one of the two horror films that would be most likely to be one I wouldn’t recommend.  I probably would have had Elevator to the Gallows way down the list of possibilities.

Chip’s Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

(But don’t take my word for it.  I freely admit that the sheer number of people who do think it’s great means that you are more likely to agree with them than to agree with me.)


  1. It's interesting that we were both more or less stymied by expectations this month. We both went into our respective films with big expectations and walked out a bit underwhelmed. The expectations created by this being noir, an influential noir, directed by may have just been more than what is at heart a crime thriller based on coincidence could handle.

    I like the way the plot works. I love the idea of a person being accused of a crime he didn't commit, but who can't provide an alibi because that would implicate him in an equally heinous crime.

    But I expected there would be one or two that didn't connect. I can't really get upset for an honest difference of opinion, although I can wish that maybe this hadn't been so hyped for you.

    1. It's not the fault of this film, but I saw another movie that uses the same concept - getting accused of something you didn't do when you are guilty of something else. I can't mention the title since it's one I'm pretty sure you will watch in the future and it would spoil it for you. That later film obviously owes a debt to Elevator to the Gallows. It's just circumstance that I saw it first and liked it.

  2. I've only seen it once. To me it was a well-told film noir, which was especially suspenseful the last 15 minutes. I rated it 4/5 on letterboxd. Shame you didn't like it more. I don't remember the rain and walking inside she is completely dry, that does sound problematic if it kept occuring.

    1. I don't want to give the impression that the goof with the rain was the only reason I didn't like the movie more, though. That would be really petty of me. Other things that took me out of the movie briefly multiple times were a magic grappling hook and an elevator with a mind of its own.

  3. Your site is really very useful so that I can find here all the reviews of those films, that interested me and decide whether it's worth it to spend time watching them or pick something else.