In his mesmerizing debut feature, twenty-four-year-old director Louis Malle brought together the beauty of Jeanne Moreau, the camerawork of Henri Decaë, and a now legendary score by Miles Davis. A touchstone of the careers of both its star and director, Elevator to the Gallows is a richly atmospheric thriller of murder and mistaken identity unfolding over one restless Parisian night.
Malle’s first feature, a straightforward but classy thriller about an ex-paratrooper’s attempt to dispose of his mistress’ tycoon husband in a perfect murder. It became associated with the early excitements of the nouvelle vague mainly through the performances of Ronet (playing a prototype of the disgruntled Vietnam veteran) and Moreau (who does some moody solo wandering in the streets searching for her missing lover). The ingenious plot, using a malfunctioning lift as its deus-ex-machina, has one carefully plotted murder conjure another as its shadow image. But the cement holding the film together is really the splendid jazz score improvised by Miles Davis.
“I was split between my tremendous admiration for Bresson and the temptation to make a Hitchcock-like film,” is how director Louis Malle described his debut feature, made in black and white when he was just 24. Adapted from Noel Calef’s pulp novel by Malle and the writer Roger Nimier, “Lift to the Scaffold” is an intelligent thriller that served as an important precursor in the late 1950s to such New Wave classics as “Breathless” and “The Four Hundred Blows”.
Ex-paratrooper Julien Tavernier (Ronet) and his mistress Florence (Moreau) come up with a plan to murder her industrialist husband Carala, who is also Tavernier’s boss. Having carried out the killing however, the former soldier finds himself trapped on his own in the office lift and fails to make the agreed rendezvous with Florence. Meanwhile, two teenagers, Louis (Poujouly) and Veronique (Bertin), steal Tavernier’s sports car and end up shooting a German tourist at a motel. All the evidence points to one man…
Cleverly structured – the two main lovers are kept apart from one another throughout – “Lift to the Scaffold” is also atmospherically shot on real life locations by cinematographer Henri Decae. Yet, as the camera scours the capital’s rain-swept streets, the film is more than an exercise in noir style because there’s a significant political context to the drama.
The disgruntled veteran Tavernier has served duty in the French wars in Algeria and Indochina, whilst the businessman Carala has greatly profited from these colonial adventures without risking his own life. Malle also depicts a generational conflict in the interactions between the middle-aged German businessman and the young two delinquents, symbols of a new, modern France. And accompanying the tightly controlled performances of Malle and Ronet is a wonderful improvised jazz score from Miles Davis.
1. Interview – Jeanne Moreau (2005)
2. Interview – Louis Malle (1975)
3. Interview – Malle and Moreau at Cannes (1993)
4. Interview – Maurice Ronet (Reflets de Cannes) (1975)
5. Miles Goes Modal
— New video program about the score with jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis and critic Gary Giddins
6. On Piano, Rene Urtreger
— Archival interview with original soundtrack session pianist René Urtreger
7. The Recording Session
— Footage of Miles Davis and Louis Malle from the soundtrack recording session
8. Original Theatrical Trailer
9. Rialto Release Trailer
10. Crazeologie (1954)
— Louis Malle’s student film, featuring the title song by Charlie Parker
Subtitles:English (idx, sub, srt)