Friday, April 14, 2006

Elevator to the Gallows, Don't Come Knocking

by Brian
As I wrote last week, I’m a sucker for theatrical reissues. I’ve always felt that if a movie is worth seeing, it’s worth seeing at a cinema, so I’ll go out of my way to see almost anything that’s been restored and reissued.

The unquestioned leader of this market is Rialto Pictures. Most of their theatrical product ends up as DVD releases from the Criterion Collection, and tends to be the kind of obscure foreign films that either never got a proper US release in the first place or have been unavailable here since they did . In previous years I’ve gotten to see gems such as The Grand Illusion, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Band of Outsiders, Rififi, The Battle of Algiers, and others in movie theaters because of these folks. Nothing excites me as a moviegoer more than seeing one of these films scheduled to open here in town.

The other night, I saw the latest Rialto restoration to hit town, Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. As one would suspect from a French noir released in 1958, it’s highly stylized, at times distractingly so. But it also feels fresh, even after almost 50 years, in a way that the most desperately stylized movies of today don’t feel even on opening day.

And there’s not so much a story as a concept, but that’s not a problem since it’s a heck of a concept; a man gets stuck in an elevator while trying to recover evidence from a crime he committed, while his mistress (played by Jeanne Moreau) wanders the streets looking for him, thinking he’s run off without her. The film oozes with restless anxiety, from Tavernier’s desperate attempts to escape from the elevator to Miles Davis’s score, which accompanies Moreau throughout her heartbroken search.

I think that, in the end, the film has one twist too many – it seems to be building towards a much different ending than the one we get – but it’s the kind of pure cinematic experience that doesn’t come around very often.

That same experience is something that Don’t Come Knocking seems to be striving for, at times desperately, in every frame. Director Wim Wenders, working from a script by Sam Shepard (who also stars), even succeeds here and there.

The movie begins with Shepard’s Howard Spence, a washed-up Western movie star, leaving the set of his newest film. From there, he embarks on a kind of improvised rambling through his past. Various characters drift in and out of the movie: Eva Marie Saint as Spence’s mother, Tim Roth as an insurance guy assigned to retrieve Spence and return him to the film set, Jessica Lange as an old flame, and so forth.

Problem is, none of these characters really provide a thread for the movie to anchor to. As a result, the great moments scattered throughout the film – and a few are really great – exist on their own, standing out from the nonsense surrounding them, but not tying together to provide any sort of consistent mood.

It’s a frustrating film. There’s great cinematography by Franz Lustig that at times has more emotional depth than the scenes it depicts. The actors seem lost amidst the chaos; at times moments of grace and honesty shine through, but at others they seem to barely be scratching the surface of their characters - only Lange and Sarah Polley seem to have a firm grasp of who they’re playing, especially impressive in Polley’s case because her character seems like more of a device than a person. And, in the end, like Spence, the film decides that it doesn’t really know where it’s going and what it wants to accomplish.

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