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Cool suspense of 'Elevator' makes for a smooth ride

To find a new movie with a tight, toned plot, you'd have to settle for an old one that happens to feel as good as new. Right now, you won't do better than ''Elevator to the Gallows," the tasty 1957 noir thriller that introduced the world to French filmmaker Louis Malle, who at the time was a 24-year-old assistant director for Jacques Cousteau.

The movie is cooler and more heartless than the films that would define him. But even as a preliminary exercise in suspense, the film suggests Malle could have made a name for himself as a Hitchcock copycat, though he'd go on to make more feeling pictures, such as 1971's ''Murmur of the Heart."

''Elevator to the Gallows" gets off to a swift start. In a phone call, illicit lovers Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet) imagine their future once Julien does away with his boss, who's also her husband. Julien hangs up, tells his secretary not to interrupt him, closes his door, and pulls open a drawer. Inside are a pair of leather gloves, a pistol, and a length of rope attached to a grapple. He then slips out the window and onto a veranda.

Julien hoists himself into the boss's office, where he puts his gun to the man's head. When he fires, we see his secretary downstairs and hear what she hears: the grind of pencils in the sharpener. Upstairs Julien slips the gun into the corpse's hand, then climbs back down to his office just in time to call it a day.

The sequence is a pleasure to watch both for the smoothness of the criminal and the craftsmanship of the crime. Malle allows us to see past the absurdity (Julien is wearing a suit and dress shoes!) in order to admire the man's aplomb. That I can recount the murder action for action suggests a bygone vintage of filmmaking. There is neither slam nor bang, just an absorbing deliberateness.

Julien, sadly, isn't as meticulous as Malle in that sequence. It's not until he's in his convertible, ready to meet Florence, that he looks up and realizes he's left the rope dangling in plain sight. Slipping back inside to retrieve it, he's trapped in the elevator when the building is closed for the night. It would be a delight to give you a synopsis of what follows, but it would rob you of the quality of Malle's storytelling.

Malle was working with the master French New Wave cinematographer Henri Decae, who understood that the sinister and the sexy did not have to be mutually exclusive. Decae's black-and-white photography infuses Malle's movie with the street-level ominousness he used for the formidable noir specialist Jean-Pierre Melville, whose ''Bob le Flambeur" had come out two years before.

The film's look makes a divine accessory for its music, which Miles Davis composed. There's not even 20 minutes of it in the film, yet it still defines the atmosphere, transforming a crime yarn into a bebop noir. During a particularly tense scene in the elevator, all Davis needs to do to make us grip our armrests is tap a cymbal and pluck a bass. But between Davis and Decae, the movie is probably too cool for its own good. This picture works better as a gripping mood piece than it does as a study of character.

Nothing anyone does is quite believable. Stuck in that elevator, Julien calmly smokes away the hours. As for Florence, she wanders around Paris looking for Julien, thinking she's been jilted. She looks blue yet more fabulous as day breaks. When a car screeches to a stop to avoid hitting her, Moreau doesn't even bother to look up. So, needless to say, panic is conspicuous by its absence.

But the noticeable lack of human warmth doesn't compromise the plot's strength. Had Malle opted for mannequins over movie stars, the casting wouldn't have made the proceedings any less entertaining.

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