The first reason to cheer Criterion’s splendid new edition of Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud), Louis Malle’s first feature, is its stunning high-definition digital transfer, which does full honor to the gimlet-eyed B&W cinematography of Henri Decae, best known for his long collaboration with Jean-Pierre Melville and for lensing Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.”
But there are plenty of other reasons to exult. Malle’s coolly elegant 1957 pic, an homage to American film noir and something of a precursor to the nouvelle vague, stars Jeanne Moreau as a rich wife seemingly betrayed by the lover who was to kill her husband, and it is wonderful to see this sovereign of mid-20th-century cinema in her early prime — the movie was released in France less than a week after her 30th birthday.
Thanks to the extras Criterion includes, we also see the actress at later points in her life, most impressively in a substantial interview recorded last year specifically for this package. Here, Moreau, well into her 70s but undimmed and uncensored, gives a detailed account of this film and the young Malle.
For those who want more, there’s also a rambling panel discussion from the 1993 Cannes Film Festival featuring Moreau and Malle and a lengthy and informative Canadian interview with the director from 1975. This set also offers a fascinating, almost combative 1957 interview with Maurice Ronet, Moreau’s co-star, filmed prior to his making “Elevator.”
No less appreciated are three features devoted to Miles Davis’ melancholy score, a veritable character in Malle’s film and among its most durable elements. Especially significant is the footage of Davis himself just after the recording session, recreating his efforts for French TV, followed by a short but substantive chat with Malle, then 25.
Topping off this extraordinary package is Malle’s first film, a short student pic called “Crazeologie” (1953) — a little bit Dada, a little bit theater of the absurd and a welcome peek at what lay ahead.