Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Malle and Postwar Murder
Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1957), like much of the film noir it references, is structured by a criss-cross: a young couple joyrides in the car of a murderer, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), and winds up committing more murders under his name. What’s exchanged seems to be not only their names, however, but also possible motivations for killing more generally. The victims of both crimes are older men implicated in the legal atrocities of the postwar period: Tavernier’s victim, Simon Carala, is not only his employer and the husband of the woman he loves (Florence-Jeanne Moreau) but a global businessman at one point described as an “arms dealer.” Tavernier shoots him after turning in his last assignment as an employee, a dossier he has compiled labeled “Exploitation des gisements de Djelfa” (above). The principal victim of the joyriding youngsters, meanwhile, shot by Louis, the surly, Brando-esque half of the couple, is a sixtyish German “tourist” named Bencker. Bencker is old enough to have held high positions in wartime, and acts like a victor in the postwar. He drives a Mercedes, the official Nazi car, carries a gun, and enjoys a much younger girlfriend; he laughs off everything with bottles of champagne, and we understand that his false bonhomie is awash in creepy "economic miracle" cash. Following the highway drag race that throws them together, a champagne afterparty enacts the postwar’s compulsory democratization of criminality through economic complicity. The difficulty of extrication is explicit: “My dear Mr. Tavernier, you are my guest.” “I can’t accept.” “But you must--I am the sporting kind . . . and besides, we nearly died together.” These two singularly unapologetic victims, Bencker and Carala, are potentially linked by the name of Djelfa, a district in Algeria but also a town in that district where an internment camp was located. The transition of war into postwar transforms a camp into an oilfield.
A familiar plot device, then—using unattractive victims to allow the viewer to sympathize with criminal protagonists—pushes a little further, as though to ask to what extent apparently apolitical crimes of passion deliver messages of history ignored by by the formalism of law. Julien and Florence murder her husband to be “free,” as the saying goes (with his money too, though they don’t say that); Louis murders Bencker for reasons more difficult to express, yet these motivations are also forced to cross as though by some compensatory economy. By killing Bencker while calling himself Tavernier, Louis is also killing Tavernier, and he has a motive to do this because his girlfriend, Véronique, idolizes Tavernier and is basically always telling him he’s no Tavernier. And Tavernier in turn is implicated in colonial war not only by working for Carala but by having served in Indochina. If he seems disillusioned now, that’s mostly because he kills Carala—by killing Carala, he acts upon a disapproval that may be the audience’s incentive for not feeling sorry, but is not his own main motive. Louis satisfies a generational political hostility that is, this time, his own—he is even aware of it--yet which takes a detour through his contradictory admiration for the sports cars of his hated rivals. The joyride gone awry makes for inarticulate terrorism, and suggests the nascent political quality of crime set against, and itself corrupted by, the oblivion of living high in the postwar. Photographs of Florence and Julien smiling together, images of the freedom for which they kill, appear on the same roll of film that incriminates Véronique and Louis by showing them drinking champagne with Bencker—as though the desire to be “free” in the postwar could only be trailed by the whisper, free with criminal money.