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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Off with Their Heads!
by Donald Levit

The title of this first non-documentary feature for its "scared to death of actors" director is confused or misleading, or both. According to screenwriter-novelist Roger Nimier, the  Henri Calef book from which the movie was adapted is  "stupid . . . but the plot is good.” As is common to film noir/policier, the involuted story has holes enormous enough to drive through in the Benckers’ 300SL Mercedes. The improvised eighteen-minute Miles Davis score is overrated. The scenes of lovesick Florence Carala against rainy streets or bars were filmmaker’s additions “not really necessary to the plot” and manage to show a Jeanne Moreau “almost ugly . . . and then incredibly attractive.” And, contrary to legend, this film "hardly discovered" that great, sexy actress. 

But it works.

Critically underestimated because of his chameleon brilliance in so many directions and genres and a refusal to play New Wave auteur by writing for Cahiers de cinéma, “Lonely Rebel” Louis Malle is the subject of an upcoming Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective. June 24 opening night centerpiece is the 1958 Ascensuer pour l’échafaud, released three years later in the U.S. as Frantic, then Elevator to the Gallows or, in the U.K., the more accurate Lift to the Scaffold (that being the place of guillotining, French method until 1981).

Aware that industry people would buy it as a “good B movie thriller” and that there were autobiographical shadows, Malle also acknowledged the fusion of his mentor Robert Bresson and Hitchcock. He should have pointed, too, to one-time Alfred Hitchcock Presents scripter Roald Dahl’s 1954 stuck-elevator story, “The Way Up to Heaven.”

Its motel aside -- the only one in the whole country then was in Normandy -- André Villard’s location shooting gives nouvelle vogue feeling for an emerging less personal Paris, along with that movement’s concern with political embarrassments like Indochina and Algeria, where former Legion paratrooper Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) had served with distinction. Now working with equal deadly efficiency for wealthy arms dealer “war profiteer” Simon Carala (Jean Wall), he is the lover of the boss’ wife Florence (Moreau, at that time Malle’s mistress), and the two plot to kill the husband, mask it as a suicide, and be “free.”

Covered by convenient whirring from an electric pencil sharpener, Plan A works. Unrealistically out of character, however, the cucumber-cool “Captain” forgets evidence left in plain sight, returns to retrieve it, and is trapped in an elevator when Consortium power is shut off for the night. He has his fully fueled lighter and les Gitanes but cannot make the scheduled triumphal rendezvous with Florence, who will doubt his nerve and loyalty and wander streets and bistros to voiced-over laments of love.

The lover-assassin also left keys, gun, gloves, raincoat and miniature spy camera in his open American convertible, which proves irresistible to delinquent blouson noir Louis (Georges Poujouly), who drives off in the car with girlfriend Véronique (Yori Bertin, the only non-professional). Outraced by a Mercedes, the youngsters are sort of befriended by its German owners, the Benckers (Iran Petrovich, Elga Anderson), and register (in Julien’s name) with them at Trappes Motel. The result of a night of lying, snapping photos, drinking and goading is another murder, a double one, and Tavernier’s revolver and effects tie him to this crime.

Overconfident les flics “will solve it in twenty-four hours,” but wily Inspecteur Chérier (Lino Ventura) begins to have his doubts. Freed when power is switched on, Julien returns to the street but not with Florence, who searches for him with drunken talkative Christian Subervie (Félix Marten) and briefly crosses paths with Chérier. The homicidal lovers, one of them sought for the twin murders he didn’t commit, will ironically not be together until, presumably, after “La Fin” and house lights rise.

“I hope to Christ they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”  

(Released by Rialto Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)


                                                                                                                                                                               
 
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