Louis Malle's classic contains many of the innovations that would become associated with the New Wave and demonstrates a kinship with Claude Chabrol
This movie made Jeanne Moreau, whose iconic beauty was newly revealed here after Malle got her to ditch the makeup she'd hitherto relied on. She went on to become one of the banner faces of the New Wave, most famously for Truffaut in Jules Et Jim, which was all her film. Ditto cinematographer Henri Decaë, always happiest outside the confines of Billancourt Studios, who brought to Lift an appetite for the streets, for real life and real people, and – most importantly – for real light and a new kind of mobility for the camera, which he put into the back seats of moving cars and operated from a wheelchair for mesmerising reverse tracking shots of Moreau walking on under-lit Parisian streets (a trick borrowed by Raoul Coutard for Godard's Breathless).
Malle was a scion of the haute bourgeoisie and heir, through his mother, to a venerable sugar fortune with hazy and ancient economic roots in slavery, which no doubt caused class friction and discomfort with his middle- and working-class Cahiers du Cinéma peers. His wealth also enabled him to set up his own production company to make Lift, a trick that pharmacist's son Claude Chabrol replicated (using his wife's inheritance) to finance his debut Le Beau Serge that same year. That they both later responded to the siren song of the French commercial feature – Malle on easy terms, Chabrol to pay off his debts – establishes a kind of kinship between them as the two most proficient showmen of the New Wave era, unafraid of the commercial imperative but happier when in charge.
And Lift To The Scaffold is about the most Chabrolian movie Malle ever made (not that there were any Chabrol movies to imitate at the time). With its suspense, its emotional coolness, its "perfect murder" plot, its structural elegance, the cruelties and ironies of fate and coincidence, and the literal steel trap at the centre of the movie (a stalled lift preventing the killer's escape), it bypasses Hitchcock to genuflect more in the direction of that great pessimist and fatalist, and master-builder of steel traps, Fritz Lang. It is a great young man's movie – slick, modish, on occasion glib or jejune (like, for example, the Coens' debut Blood Simple) – but for all that a glittering jewel of 50s French film-making.
Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur Pour L'Échafaud) – review
Louis Malle's brash debut, now on rerelease, about a wealthy married woman who hatches a criminal plot is a brilliant, preposterous slice of noir suspense
Two years before Breathless, before Godard was talking about needing a girl and a gun, 26-year-old Louis Malle unveiled this brash debut: a brilliant, preposterous slice of noir-suspense realism and Highsmithian mistaken identity, imbued with the poetry of romantic despair, mostly voiced directly into the camera by Jeanne Moreau – a captivating kind of choric-fatale, with dark sensuous shadows under the eyes. She is a wealthy married woman, Mme Florence Cabala, who in this era when capital punishment (the "scaffold") was very much on France's statute book, hatches the imperfect crime with her lover, ex‑paratrooper Julien (Maurice Ronet). Chaotically, their paths cross with gamine florist's assistant, Véronique (Yori Bertin), and her teen boyfriend, Louis (Georges Poujouly). They are the younger generation, contemptuous of their elders' imperial adventures and behaviour during the Occupation, but apparently just as cynical and greedy. It ends in violence and with a cop on their trail: Cherrier, played by Lino Ventura (seen in Claude Sautet's recently revived 60s thriller Classe Tous Risques). It is not free of plot-holes – audiences are entitled to ask how a certain grappling-hook could become detached from a rail and fall to the pavement – but what a supremely stylish and watchable picture it is. Visiting the crime scene, the investigating prosecutor (Hubert Deschamps) drolly calls it a classical tragedy, and it does observe the Aristotelian unity of time, unfolding over 24 hours.
Miles Davis provides the soundtrack to Louis Malle’s daring and deranged debut.
Louis Malle’s sizzling debut, made when he was just 24, is the film that brought the ravishing Jeanne Moreau to the world’s attention; her haunted, nocturnal wanderings burn white hot as she frantically searches for her lover, accompanied by Miles Davis’ moody score.
Known in the US as Elevator to the Gallows – a more starkly fatalistic title – Lift to the Scaffoldis a strange and sultry thriller: a very French film noir. In its gloomy, murderous but paradoxically chic universe, romance is doomed and duplicitous; lovers are utterly tortured rather than blissfully ensconced. Events conspire remorselessly against the protagonists, with a black cat even appearing in an improbable location to suggest a man’s downfall.
Opening on Moreau’s love-struck eyes – as Florence and her lover Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) breathily profess their devotion over the telephone – it’s a sordidly suspicious beginning, which reeks of adultery and worse. Julien, it turns out, is an ex-paratrooper turned businessman, who moments later is shown killing his employer Simon Carala (Jean Wall), a wealthy arms dealer.
At first Julien appears the model of murderous efficiency but undoes his initial handiwork spectacularly when he first leaves a grappling hook at the scene of the crime and then, in an unfortunate and bizarre turn of events, finds himself trapped in a lift as he ascends to retrieve the incriminating item.
It quickly transpires that Florence is Mrs Carala, the murdered man’s young wife, as well as Julien’s lover and, more diabolically, his partner in crime. As Julien lies trapped, in a further cruel twist of fate, his car is stolen by a young hellraiser, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and his reluctant girlfriend Véronique (Yori Bertin), whose reckless actions will have dire consequences for Julien and Florence.
Released four years before her career-defining role as Catherine in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (which established her as one of the faces of the nouvelle vague), Lift to the Scaffold features Jeanne Moreau’s breakthrough screen performance.
Already by this point an acclaimed stage actress, she was later to become one of the greatest screen actresses of all time – a global phenomenon, famous for her psychological complexity and seditious sensuality, and with a beauty both compromised and complicated by her sad smile.
Moreau and Malle would collaborate again soon after Lift to the Scaffold, and to similarly potent effect, with Les Amants, a racy portrait of female desire which troubled US censors.
One ofLift to the Scaffold's particular and singular delights is Miles Davis' terrific jazz score, improvised with his band over the course of one long night. Despite Davis' own apparent dissatisfaction with the end result, it is a masterful accomplishment, capturing the delinquency of Louis, the melancholy turmoil of Florence and the murky, meandering madness of the film as a whole.
As well as giving us Moreau, Lift to the Scaffold can be seen as the missing link in French cinema between the austerity of Robert Bresson and playful exuberance of the nouvelle vague. Malle admits to being hugely inspired by the work of Bresson, as well as Jean Renoir, and there are clear debts.
Due to its many stylistic innovations, some consider Lift to the Scaffold to be the first film of the nouvelle vague, although Malle did not associate himself with the rebellious movement spearheaded by Cahiers du Cinéma writers-turned-directors Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol.
An intense, tumultuous portrait of l’amour fou, with a nasty sting its tail,Lift to the Scaffold is one of the great debuts, a significant milestone in French cinema and a gripping, unconventional thriller to boot.
In 1949, a 22-year-old Davis travelled to Paris, as part of a quintet that included the pianist Tadd Dameron. The quintet was booked to play at the first Paris international jazz festival since the war ended. In the US, Davis was already a rising star in the jazz world, but while he was highly respected among his peers, in mainstream America he was seen as a second-class citizen. It was a time when segregation and discrimination were rife, and most US states enforced anti-miscegenation laws. But France was a different story, and nothing could have prepared Davis for the reception he would receive in Paris. "This was my first trip out of the country," recalled Davis in his autobiography. "It changed the way I looked at things forever ... I loved being in Paris and loved the way I was treated. Paris was where I understood that all white people were not the same; that some weren't prejudiced."
"Miles often talked about Paris," says the Australian film director Rolf de Heer, who worked with Davis in Paris in 1990. "The French were in love with Miles and treated him like a god. He liked that because it was a form of respect he didn't get in his own country." French jazz pianist René Urtreger adds: "Miles was proud and touched by the fact that in France, jazz was considered to be very important music."
The Miles Davis and Tadd Dameron quintet played at the Salle Pleyel concert hall, and Davis was soon befriended by Boris Vian, a 29-year-old French polymath, whose numerous talents included writing, poetry, engineering, songwriting and playing jazz trumpet. Vian introduced Davis to Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the group would sit together in hotels, cafes and clubs in the Saint-Germain district, using a mixture of broken French, broken English and sign language to communicate. Davis also met another acquaintance of Vian's: the actor and singer Juliette Gréco. Gréco, who was almost the same age as Davis, first met him at the Salle Pleyel: Gréco stood in the wings with Vian's wife, Michelle, watching Davis play. Gréco's long black hair, large dark eyes and petite frame soon attracted Davis. Gréco in turn, was entranced: "I caught a glimpse of Miles, in profile: a real Giacometti, with a face of great beauty," she said in a 2006 interview. They were introduced and fell in love.
Davis and Gréco would often explore Paris together; walking hand-in-hand by the banks of the Seine, drinking in cafes and listening to music in clubs. "Juliette was probably the first woman that I loved as an equal human being," recalled Davis. He also fell in love with Paris; with its smells of coffee and cologne, and with the freedom it offered.
Davis wasn't the only black American musician who fell for the charms of Paris, and some (like the drummer Kenny Clarke) decided to stay in France rather than return to a harsher life in the US. But back home, Davis had a partner and two young children. He said goodbye to Gréco (although they would remain in touch all their lives) and returned home. But back in America, jazz was in crisis, with clubs closing down and gigs becoming harder to find. Depressed by his longing for Gréco, his status in American society and deteriorating work prospects, Davis became a heroin addict. It would take him four years to kick the habit.
In 1956, a cleaned-up Davis returned to Paris for the start of a European tour featuring the Birdland All Stars (Birdland was a top New York jazz club, and other artists on the tour included saxophonist Lester Young and pianist Bud Powell). Davis played with a French rhythm trio that included Urtreger: "The 1950s were a golden age for jazz in France," says Urtreger. "In England, you had union laws that restricted the number of American jazz artists who could play there, but in France, we welcomed everybody." Davis also formed a romantic attachment with Urtreger's older sister, Jeannette. The following year, he returned to Paris for another tour and was joined again by Urtreger. Around the same time, Davis was asked by French director Louis Malle to compose the soundtrack to the film noir Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold). The soundtrack, consisting of improvised music played by Davis, Urtreger and others, was a huge success.
Davis regularly returned to Paris throughout the rest of his life. In 1989, he received one of Paris's highest awards, the Grande Médaille de Vermeil, which was presented to him by the then mayor of Paris (and future French president) Jacques Chirac. Urtreger attended the ceremony: "Miles was very moved and very honoured," he says. In the same year, Davis played at the 10th annual Paris festival of jazz. The next summer, Davis spent three weeks filming in Paris, playing the role of a jazz trumpeter in the movie Dingo. "I'll never forget after we had shot the final scene." says De Heer. "We were on the banks of the Seine and Miles turned to me and said, 'I just don't want this to end,' and part of the reason was that he was so comfortable being in Paris."
On 10 July 1991, Davis played a remarkable concert in the city at the Grande Halle de la Villette. Entitled Miles and Friends, it saw the trumpeter and his current band playing with many of his old associates including saxophonists Jackie McLean and Wayne Shorter, keyboardists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, and guitarists John Scofield and John McLaughlin. The English bassist Dave Holland, who played with Davis in the late 1960s, also took part: "It was like a festival based around Miles and people who had played with him," he says. The French pianist Katia Labèque met Davis in his dressing room afterwards: "He was very moved and very happy about the concert," she notes. Six days later, Davis was back in Paris to receive one of France's highest cultural awards: he became a Knight of the Legion of Honour. Davis received the award from French culture minister Jack Lang, who described him as: "The Picasso of jazz." Barely two months later, the musician was dead.