Ascenseur pour l’échafoud
UK: Lift to the Scaffold

 (Louis Malle, France, 1958) 91 minutes


Director: Louis Malle
Producer: Jean Thuillier
Screenplay: Roger Nimier, Louis Malle
  from a novel by Noël Calef
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Editor: Léonide Azar
Music: Miles Davis
Jeanne Moreau (Florence Carala)
Maurice Ronet (Julien Tavernier)
Georges Poujouly (Louis)
Yori Bertin (Véronique)
Jean Wall (Simon Carala)
Elga Andersen (Frieda Bencker)
Micheline Bona (Geneviève)

Reviews and notes

1958 Cannes
1996 Mar del Plata
2003 Locarno
2012 Taipei
2015 Cannes (digitally restored version)
2016 Gothenburg

For his feature debut, twenty-four-year-old Louis Malle brought together a mesmerizing performance by Jeanne Moreau, evocative cinematography by Henri Decaë, and a now legendary jazz score by Miles Davis. Taking place over the course of one restless Paris night, Malle’s richly atmospheric crime thriller stars Moreau and Maurice Ronet as lovers whose plan to murder her husband (his boss) goes awry, setting off a chain of events that seals their fate. A career touchstone for its director and female star, Elevator to the Gallows was an astonishing beginning to Malle’s eclectic body of work, and it established Moreau as one of the most captivating actors ever to grace the screen.
- Criterion.com

She loves him. "Je t'aime, je t'aime," she repeats into the telephone, in the desperate closeup that opens Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (1958). He needs to know this, because he is going to commit a murder for them. The woman is Jeanne Moreau, looking bruised by the pain of love. She plays Florence, wife of the millionaire arms dealer Simon Carala (Jean Wall). Her lover, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), is a paratrooper who served in Indochina and Algeria, in wars that made Carala rich. Now he works for Carala, and is going to kill him and take his wife.

Because Julien has access and a motive, he must make this a perfect crime. Malle, who apprenticed with the painstaking genius Robert Bresson, devotes loving care to the details of the murder. After office hours, Julien uses a rope and a hook to climb up one floor and enter a window of Simon's office. He shoots him, makes it look like a suicide, bolts the office from inside, leaves by the window. An elegant little Locked Room Mystery. Then he climbs back down and leaves to meet his mistress.

Stupidly, he has left behind evidence. It is growing dark. Perhaps no one has noticed. He hurries back to the office and gets into an elevator, but then the power is shut off in the building for the night, and he is trapped between floors. Florence, meanwhile, waits and waits in the cafe where they planned their rendezvous. And then, in a series of shots that became famous, she walks the streets, visiting all their usual haunts, looking for the lover she is convinced has deserted her.

Moreau plays these scenes not with frantic anxiety, but with a kind of masochistic despair, not really expecting to find Julien. It rains, and she wanders drenched in the night. Malle shot her scenes using a camera in a baby carriage pushed along beside her by the cinematographer Henri Decae, who worked with Jean-Pierre Melville on another great noir of the period, Bob le Flambeur (1955). Her face is often illuminated only by the lights of the cafes and shops that she passes; at a time when actresses were lit and photographed with care, these scenes had a shock value, and influenced many films to come. We see that Florence is a little mad. An improvised jazz score by Miles Davis seems to belong to the night as much as she does.

Meanwhile, Julien struggles to free himself from the elevator. There is a parallel story. His parked car is stolen by a teenage couple - the braggart Louis (Georges Poujouly) and his girlfriend Veronique (Yori Bertin). They get into a fender-bender with a German tourist and his wife, and the tourists rather improbably invite them to party with them at a motel. This leads to murder, and the police of course suspect Julien because his car is found at the scene.

The more I see the great French crime films of the 1950s, the earlier seems the dawning of the New Wave. The work of Melville, Jacques Becker and their contemporaries uses the same low-budget, unsprung, jumpy style that was adapted by Truffaut in Jules and Jim and Godard in Breathless (which owes a lot to the teenage couple in Elevator). Malle became a card-carrying New Waver, and Elevator to the Gallows could be called the first New Wave title, except then what was Bob le Flambeur?

These 1950s French noirs abandon the formality of traditional crime films, the almost ritualistic obedience to formula, and show crazy stuff happening to people who seem to be making up their lives as they go along. There is an irony that Julien, trapped in the elevator, has a perfect alibi for the murders he is suspected of, but seems inescapably implicated with the one he might have gotten away with. And observe the way Moreau, wandering the streets, handles her arrest for prostitution. She is so depressed it hardly matters, and yet, is this the way the wife of a powerful man should be treated? Even one she hopes is dead?
- Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com, 15 September 2005.

Louis Malle recalls aspects of making the film:

Once we started working on the adaptation, things went very fast and we signed Jeanne Moreau. Now people often say, "You discovered Jeanne Moreau." I didn't — she was already a star then, a B-movie star. Also, she was recognized as the prime stage actress of her generation. She had been at the Comedie Francaise; she had worked with Gerard Philipe. But in films she had never come through, except in those B-movie thrillers with Jean Gabin, where her roles were not terribly interesting. But she was a commercial plus. In fact, the distributor insisted that we cast Jeanne Moreau. Suddenly they discovered that she was potentially a big film-star. Up until then people used to say that although she was a great actress, and very sexy, she was simply not photogenic. I had this great cameraman, Henri Decaë, whom I knew from the early Melville films, like Bob le Flambeur (1956). I, as well as those in the New Wave, admired Decaë tremendously. He started me, he started Chabrol, and then Truffaut and a number of others. But I was the first one of my generation to work with him. When we started shooting, the first scenes we did with Jeanne Moreau were in the streets, on the Champs Elysees. We had the camera in a pram, and she had no light — it was black and white of course; we were using this new fast film, the Tri-X, which serious filmmakers thought too grainy. We did several long tracking shots of her, and, of course, when the film was finished there was the great music of Miles Davis, plus her voice, her inner voice. She was lit only by the windows of the Champs Elysees. That had never been done. Cameramen would have forced her to wear a lot of make-up and they would put a lot of light on her because, supposedly, her face was not photogenic. That first week there was a rebellion of the technicians at the lab after they had seen the dailies. They went to the producer and said, "You must not let Malle and Decaë destroy Jeanne Moreau." They were horrified. But when the film was released, suddenly something of her essential qualities came out: she could be almost ugly and then ten seconds later she would turn her face and would be incredibly attractive. But she would be herself. And, of course, it was confirmed by The Lovers, which I did almost right after. So, I contributed to making her into a star, but she had already made something like seven or eight films.

Would Louis Malle's feature debut be remembered as well were it not for the unconventional score Miles Davis recorded with his band over the course of one winter night in 1957? A classic French crime film whose central conceit, keeping the couple engaged in an intense, illicit affair apart for the entire course of the film, profited from the superb performances of Jean Moreau and Maurice Ronet, and the cinematography of Henri Decaë, the melancholy sound of Davis trumpet and the sparse instrumentation of his band add depth and atmosphere to Malle's already moody and modern drama. "The results," as Davis' biographer Ian Carr noted, "far from being a finished masterpiece, were in fact like sketches and notes for some bigger work". The encounter between the filmmaker and one of his idols was one of pure chance. As Malle remembered, "When I was shooting the film it seemed inconceivable to me that I could have a score by Miles Davis, but in the room of the teenage girl, by her bed, there was the sleeve of a Miles Davis album very much in evidence. Then by a bizarre coincidence, when I was editing and was about to make the choice of music, Miles Davis came to Paris. He came on his own, without his usual musicians, to play in a club for something like three weeks. And I literally jumped on him. I got a lot of help from a writer called Boris Vian, whom I knew and who was also a trumpet-player." Vian said of the night for the soundtrack album's sleeve notes, "Jean Moreau, the star of the movie, was there, greeting delightfully musicians and technicians at an improvised bar. Producers and technicians were there, as well as Louis Malle who endeavoured to get from Miles whatever he wished to add to the picture." In his autobiography (written with Quincy Troupe) Davis emphasised the importance of the space they recorded in: "I would look at the rushes of the film and get musical ideas to write down. Since it as about a murder and was supposed to be a suspense movie, I used this very old, very gloomy, dark building where I had the musicians play. I thought it would give the music atmosphere, and it did. Everyone loved what I did with the music on that film." For Malle, the 18-odd minutes of music that appears in the film was essential to its success: "I remember very well how it was without the music, but when we got to the final mix and added the music, it seemed like the film suddenly took off. It was not like a lot of film music, emphasizing or trying to add to the emotion that is implicit in the images and the rest of the soundtrack. It was a counter-point, it was elegiac — and it was somewhat detached. But also it created a certain mood for the film. I remember the opening scene, the Miles Davis trumpet gave it a tone which added tremendously to the first images. I strongly believe that without Miles Davis's score the film would not have had the critical and public response that it had." It is also remarkable for the fact that Davis recorded it with a band he had not previously played with, who were accompanying him during his week-long stint at Paris' Club St-Germain. Yet as Carr notes, even though "the resulting ten short pieces are really no more than fragments, they afford several insights into Miles' development. For perhaps the first time, it became clear to him that it was possible to create absorbing music with neither formally written themes or any real harmonic movement."
- Curzon Artificial Eye.

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