Louis Malle's auteurist French New Wave colleagues hated the way he changed his approach to filmmaking on nearly every project, but even his detractors admitted that he could execute just about any style with precision and depth. He first wowed audiences at age 26 with his 1958 feature debut Elevator To The Gallows, a noir-ish thriller about two French couples who commit murder on the same night. It's really three films, following two romantic young outlaws, one corporate thug trapped in an elevator, and the thug's wandering lover (Jeanne Moreau). The clever plot, melancholy Miles Davis score, expressively naturalistic Henri Decaë cinematography, and iconic performance by Moreau covered up Malle's intermittently slack storytelling, and also partly obscured the way Malle subtly commenced a career-long contemplation of what happens when killing becomes an intellectual choice.
Malle went on to make a string of slick, genre-hopping features before digging deeper in the early '70s with 1971's Murmur Of The Heart and 1974's Lacombe Lucien. The former stars Benoît Ferreux as a provincial teen mired in the petty thievery and emotional distress of adolescence, while the latter has Pierre Blaise as another provincial teen who becomes an informer/enforcer for the Nazis. The two stories are separated by a decade—Murmur is set in 1954, Lacombe in 1944—and by the gulf between rich and poor. Both are about shocking behavior in morally corrupt times, though Murmur tells its story of colonial guilt and intimate mother-son relationships with a nostalgic buoyancy, while Lacombe is hushed and, even with the preponderance of handheld shots, unnervingly static.
Criterion has packaged Murmur and Lacombe together in a set that includes 1987's Au Revoir Les Enfants, the closest Malle ever came to straight autobiography. It's based on an incident from his occupation-era Catholic-school boyhood, when the Gestapo forcibly expelled a handful of his Jewish classmates. It's arguably Malle's masterpiece, marked by a shooting style with little wasted motion or complication, emphasizing tiny, memorable details. And like most of Malle's work, Au Revoir Les Enfants is solidly bourgeois, excusing the misbehavior of the moneyed classes by charting how the pervasiveness of evil makes us all complicit.
Key features: On Elevator, interviews and an early short film; on the box set 3 Films By Louis Malle, a bonus disc with interviews and excerpts from French TV shows about cinema.