Lift to the Scaffold/Ascenseur pour l’Echafaud
Film Title: Lift to the Scaffold
Director: Louis Malle
Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly
Running Time: 88 min
How’s this for an overture? Julien (Maurice Ronet), a former paratrooper in the Foreign Legion, kills the shadowy industrialist husband of Florence (Jeanne Moreau), his lover. There are no witnesses but, realising he has left a potential clue, Julien returns to the scene of the crime, only to get trapped in the elevator.
Outside, Julian’s car is stolen by local flower seller Veronique (Yori Bertin) and her greaser boyfriend, Louis (Georges Poujouly). They drive by Florence, who makes a note of the pretty girl in Julien’s car, and draws her own dark conclusions.
Alone and discombobulated, Florence is left to enact one of the movieverse’s most iconic sequences: a distraught Jeanne Moreau, bags under her sleepless eyes, wearing a haunted expression, and wandering through Paris at night to the strains of Miles Davis.
A bridging artwork, Louis Malle’s 1958 thriller belongs to the same audacious subset as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. Lift to the Scaffold, at a squint, looks like classic noir: a genre that often found favour within the pages of Cahiers du Cinema. But look again and it’s a Nouvelle Vague joint.
In this spirit, political subtext lurks at every turn: Julien has lately returned from the colonies with “heaps of medals and scars”. Louis refuses to drink alcohol as his “generation doesn’t care about champagne: we care about Algeria and Indo-China”. Florence’s husband is in the weapons business.
Stylistically, too, Elevator to the Gallows (or Frantic, as it was orignally known in the US) is a whole new bag. The natural light allows us to see Moreau’s pained face; the role would make her a star, after more than a dozen earlier film roles. The standard noir morality takes on existential hues and forlorn trumpet soundings.
The film marks a new way of visualising music and articulating imagery. Miles Davis’s contribution ensures that Lift to the Scaffold retains a recognisability. But let’s not forget about the extraordinary movie behind the mournful din.