Actress Jeanne Moreau and actor Maurice Ronet
Actress Jeanne Moreau with the director Louis Malle
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud) B
France (91 mi) 1958 d: Louis Malle
Louis Malle, who got his start working as an assistant director/research assistant to Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), was only 24 when making his first feature, quite unusual at the time, adapting a novel by the same name from Noël Calef, collaborating on the screenplay with French novelist Roger Nimier (who received a backlash of condemnation for his right-wing political leanings), yet inventing a role for Jeanne Moreau that was virtually nonexistent in the novel, sketching a film that is at times spacious and overly detached, yet hauntingly spare. Maximizing an internalized perpective, making use of street locations, the film was shot in black and white, creating a low-budget B-movie thriller that introduced actress Jeanne Moreau to the world, making her an international sensation, though she was by then a recognized theatrical star from Comédie Française and had already made more than a dozen films, including Jacques Becker’s French gangster picture with Jean Gabin, TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (1954), that happens to feature Moreau and Lino Ventura, both of whom reappear here, using Melville’s cinematographer Henri Decaë, whose insistence to use natural light in night shots from the illuminated store windows of the shops along the Champs-Élysées was revelatory at the time, given a documentary sense of naturalism, anticipating the breezy cinéma vérité style of the French New Wave. Most astonishingly, however, who could ignore Malle’s collaboration with jazz legend Miles Davis in FRANTIC (1958), the American film name when it was initially released in 1961, renamed ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (where the LP record under the original title remains a collector’s item), composed in one all-night session, music that so beautifully captures the aching sorrow of loneliness, sadness, anxiety, and regret, JEANNE MOREAU IN "LIFT TO THE SCAFFOLD" (MILES DAVIS THEME) YouTube (2:15), improvisations perfectly in synch with Moreau’s long wandering nocturnal walks down the Champs-Élysées (much of it shot from a baby carriage on a moving dolly, including the reactions of ordinary people walking down the street gaping at Moreau), a moody portrait of Paris in the late 50’s, with Moreau feeling isolated and removed from the rest of the world, where her haunted face becomes the drama, lost in her own thoughts, remaining a complex enigma throughout the film, and a prelude for a similar sequence in Antonioni’s LA NOTTE (1961). Etched with a predominate theme of fatalism, the noirish-tinged atmosphere perfectly expresses the continual moral failings of the characters portrayed, each with a go-for-broke mentality, where you can be at the top of the world one day, but at the bottom the next. Set to the romanticized strains of an existential love story, our ill-fated lovers, Jeanne Moreau as Florence Carala and Maurice Ronet as Julien Duvalier, are separated throughout, never once in a single scene together, yet a lingering opening phone call suggests they can’t live without the other, agreeing to meet in a half-hour, with hopes they will be together always, where their love feels strained, perhaps even fantasized, feeling more like an obsession, where its mere existence depends upon carrying out the perfect crime, which viewers see in great detail right from the outset, leading to murder, a crime of passion.
While Julien appears to get away scot free, he notices a traceable clue he left behind, returning to the scene of the crime, but since it takes place on a Sunday in an office building closed for the weekend once he presumably left, he ends up getting stuck between floors in the elevator once the power is shut off. Thinking this would just take a minute, he leaves his car running on the street, quickly taken advantage of by a pair of young adolescent lovers, small-time crook Louis (Georges Poujouly) and florist Véronique (Yori Bertin), who swipe his vehicle in an infamous joy ride (viewed by Florence, who sees the girl in the front seat, assuming Julien chickened out on their plans), making a mad dash to a euphoric freedom that comes with not having a care in the world, expressing contempt for the bourgeoisie, a model for Godard’s young lovers in Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) (1959), and a signature moment in the French New Wave, which never really accepted Louis Malle, as he was not part of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd that got their start writing pointed criticism of established conventions, yet this film helped pave the way, though it lacks the playfulness and buoyant spontaneous ingenuity associated with the movement and is instead a picture of modern alienation predating Antonioni, becoming a vacuous character study known for its lengthy wordless sequences. Finding Julien’s gun in the glove compartment, while wearing his trench coat and gloves, the couple fantasizes themselves through his quixotic life, a former officer of the French Foreign Legion and a veteran of the Indochina and Algerian wars, a man leading a double life, respectable on the outside, but hired to do the dirty work for his boss, a wealthy industrialist Simon Carala (Jean Wall) whose business is a front for crooked arms dealing. Political implications are embedded into the backstory, with Malle offering a surprisingly prescient subtext centered upon France’s sullied colonial history (Algeria wouldn’t gain independence for another 4 years), creating an allure of subterfuge, espionage, back-room deals, and corruption. These kids can only imagine whose car they’ve stolen, racing up and down the highway, thrilled with driving as fast as they can, attempting to outrun a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, but is dismally outclassed, following the car to an outlying motel where they cause a minor fender bender, meeting a German couple on holiday, Horst Bencker (Iván Petrovich) and his trophy wife Frieda (Elga Andersen), who invite them over for drinks. Deciding to register under the name Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier, the lovebirds are welcomed by the charming warmth of the older couple, where Horst has a bon vivant, larger-than-life personality, like a worldly Charles Boyer, angrily recalling a lack of champagne during his involvement with the conquering German Occupation of Paris during the war (which is only 12 years removed), then emptying several bottles of champagne while the women play with the tiny cigarette lighter-sized camera, like a James Bond device, before retreating to their separate rooms. Louis decides to leave under cover of darkness, thinking he’ll swap cars, but is caught red-handed trying to steal the Mercedes, resulting in an eruption of gunfire, with Louis emptying the chamber, shooting both of his neighbors with Julien’s gun, quickly retreating back to Paris. Feeling doomed, sure to get caught, but not wanting to separate, they consume sleeping pills in a suicide pact.
Meanwhile, Julien attempts to crawl his way out of the elevator, but is unsuccessful, while Florence wanders the streets endlessly searching for him, returning to the places they frequent, not really expecting to find him, feeling lost and despondent, with the moody, introspective music of Miles Davis playing through the interludes, eventually finding herself in a late hour bar scene with drunken associates of Julien painting an ugly picture of his sordid early career. The bar is raided by the vice squad, suspects are rounded up and we confirm her actual identity from Lino Ventura as Chérier, the Police Inspector, politely apologizing that she was mistakenly included in the arrests, noting her husband is a distinguished figure that regularly lunches with the Interior Minister, receiving special treatment, in stark contrast from the others, as she is quickly released. When police discover the gunned down German couple, all evidence points to Duvalier as the murderer, shot by his gun, with his trenchcoat left behind in his car, making the front page of the morning newspaper headlines. When police arrive at the office building where he works, they turn the power to the elevator back on, allowing Julien to discreetly exit without being seen, but he’s ravenous, ordering coffee and croissants at a nearby café, where he’s quickly recognized by the newspaper photos, with police arriving at the scene, bringing him in for questioning, discovering Carala’s body in the same building, but it appears he committed suicide, shot by his own gun. Police, however, refuse to believe Julien’s explanation that he was stuck in an elevator all night and charge him with murdering the Benckers, a crime he did not commit, yet he’s guilty of killing someone else in a film filled with mistaken identities and misunderstandings. It’s the presence of Lino Ventura that adds weight to these scenes, as he’s a cool and calm figure, always measured and circumspect, forever associated with Melville, and the centerpiece of Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres) (1969). His mannered professionalism contrasts with the impulsive spontaneous combustion of the other tragic figures, weighing carefully what witnesses actually said, following leads and examining the evidence, finding it curious that both Mrs. Carala and Mr. Duvalier both contended they barely knew the other, yet both spend eventful nights that he has to dutifully deconstruct, finding them at the center of the crime, though both share the same alibi of only a casual acquaintance. Turning into a police procedural, inspired by Hitchcock-like themes and precise execution, including the long hours Julien spends alone in silence struggling to escape captivity (mirroring Moreau’s long and captivatingly silent walk), yet also the dimly lit, uninterrupted interrogation scene that is brilliantly choreographed, a shadow play of darkness and light, with the two cops circling in and out of the surrounding darkness, elevated by the powerful presence of Lino Ventura, the finale is emphatically conclusive, distinguished more by mood than dialogue, where the Miles Davis music literally transforms the film, with the bottom dropping out of this incriminating love affair, turning a love story into a crime thriller filled with calamitous implications.
entire film in French, no subtitles, YouTube (1:31:30)