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DVD Review: Louis Malle: Four Films

By Glenn Abel

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The actress Jeanne Moreau, now almost 80, pauses from talking about her film career, as if something urgent has occurred to her. She looks dead at you, the viewer, her eyes dark and instantly hypnotic. "You think you know a lot," she says. "And you don't."

Moreau then casually returns you to the story of how she made the groundbreaking "Elevator to the Gallows" (1958) with young Louis Malle, her director and lover. "It was the decisive moment for the rest of my life," the storied French actress says. photo

Moreau's talk is one of several compelling extra features on Criterion's new double-disc release of "Gallows" (Ascenseur pour l'echafaud). The movie itself, somewhere between noir and new wave, is remembered mostly for its innovations in camerawork and for its soundtrack, a work of improvisation by Miles Davis that pushed jazz in new directions.

The French director made quite a few better films. "Gallows," his first, certainly will be of interest to jazz fans -- and to those who can't get enough of his work after absorbing Criterion's superb "3 Films of Louis Malle" box set, released in late March (below). photo

The "Gallows" set devotes three short films to the all-night session that produced the Davis soundtrack.

"Malle had nerves of steel to put something as important as the score in the hands of an improvising musician," the critic Gary Giddins says in the 24-minute interview piece "Miles Goes Modal."

Davis recorded in Paris with the expatriate drummer Kenny Clarke and three Europeans. Each worked in front of a screen displaying a rough cut of the movie. Davis seems to duet with Moreau's character, who walks wraithlike through the streets of Paris as he plays. "It was a flow," says the actress, a witness to the session. Also on hand was a French TV crew, which came away with severely hip footage of Davis improvising (it runs about 4 minutes). The trumpeter carried over the soundtrack's style to his hugely influential albums "Milestones" and "Kind of Blue."

The one-channel audio, taken from the 35mm print's optical track, benefits from significant restoration. Davis' horn sounds silky yet distinct. In action scenes, the cymbals and bass pounce out of the speakers. Henri Decae's black-and-white images are works of art, casting nighttime Paris and Moreau in existing light. The free-moving camera and low lighting were innovations that inspired France's emerging new wave. ("Gallows" is presented widescreen with the 16:9 enhancement.)

Malle reflects on the film in another extra, a high-energy Canadian TV interview from 1975: "This film from the end of the 1950s was announcing the '60s. ... It's Paris as it would be 10 years later." While "Gallows" focuses on the efforts of Moreau's character and her lover to slay her fat-cat husband, it detours for the tale of joyriding young Parisians who kill a friendly older couple without hesitation or afterthought -- forerunners, Malle suggests, of modern cinema's natural born killers.

The Malle box set contains "Murmur of the Heart" (1971), "Lacombe, Lucien" (1974) and his triumph "Au Revoir Les Enfants" (1987) -- all remarkable films set in France. They are in color, with Criterion's usual first-rate transfers (widescreen, enhanced).

Descriptions of "Murmur" usually begin and end with the incest between the teen hero and his youthful mother, but most of the time the film serves up a comic, life-affirming look at growing up in 1950s France. Biographer Pierre Billard, who gives an excellent talk about Malle in the set's extra-features disc, says the French debate over the incest scene quickly morphed into a larger debate over censorship. Malle, he says, "courted scandal."

"Lacombe, Lucien" also brought controversy. The story of a brutish French teenager who joins occupying Germans in hunting down resistance fighters was condemned as soft on collaborators. Malle, who loved documentaries, employed a distanced, non-judgmental tone that acknowledged the humanity of the blood-simple turncoat.

Malle moved to the United States in the late '70s, creating some notable English-language films ("Atlantic City," "Pretty Baby") and some bombs ("Crackers"). After 1985's "Alamo Bay" turned into target-practice for film critics, he returned home to heal and reassess.

The homecoming inspired more criticism. Malle's years in the States had alienated his countrymen. "They still haven't forgiven him for that," says Candice Bergen, who gives an otherwise upbeat talk about her late husband on the DVD. "It's horrible." (Malle died in 1995, in Los Angeles.)

The director, from a wealthy family, attended a Catholic boarding school during the occupation. Germans raided the school one morning, arresting the head priest and several Jewish children he'd been hiding. They all perished in the camps. These events provided the autobiographical backbone for "Au Revoir Les Enfants," often cited as Malle's greatest work.

It too dealt with collaboration. One of the box set's extras is an unusual character analysis of Joseph, the bitter kitchen worker who informs on the priest. Other DVD special features include three audio interviews with Malle; footage of the director at work on "Murmur" and "Lacombe"; the 2005 interviews with Bergen and the biographer; and, in a nice touch, a copy of Charlie Chaplin's "The Immigrant," which the "Enfants" delight to in one of that film's many light-hearted moments.

On the "Gallows" disc, extras also include a fun chat with Malle and Moreau at 1993's Cannes festival; an interview with the (somewhat disgruntled) pianist who played on the soundtrack; and Malle's absurdist student film "Crazeologie," which bops along to the titular Charlie Parker song.

Both packages include booklets with substantial essays. The package for "Gallows" stacks its two DVDs off-center in the same space, inviting scratches and worse.

Buy "Elevator to the Gallows" at 24% off; Buy "3 Films by Louis Malle" at 24% off.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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