Archive: Lift To The Scaffold / Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958)

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud

An iconic black and white classic, Louis Malle’s Lift To The Scaffold is a noirish Parisian tale of murder and suspense which made a star of Jeanne Moreau.

Lift to the Scaffold

The Night Of The Hunter by Alexa Dalby

It should have been the perfect crime. In one of the seminal French films of the 1950s, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), a handsome veteran of the Indo-China and Algerian Wars, and his lover Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) are in Double Indemnity-style cahoots to plan the ingenious murder of her arms-manufacturer husband in his empty office on a Saturday. But – like the setting in motion of Hitchcock’s suspense pro forma of the ticking time bomb under the table – when Tavernier returns to remove incriminating evidence he’s forgotten, he’s trapped in the lift trying desperately to free himself before the building comes to life again on Monday – when both he and the body will inevitably be discovered.

Meanwhile, he has left his open-topped sports car parked outside. A teenage couple (Yori Bertin and Georges Poujouly) steal it and go on a spree using Tavernier’s name, which ends in another murder. And in a series of forever-iconic scenes which made both her and the city a star, Jeanne Moreau famously walks the streets and trawls the bars of Paris all night broken-heartedly looking for him, to the accompaniment of a jazz soundtrack specially improvised in a single night by Miles Davis.

Considered a forerunner of the Nouvelle Vague, Louis Malle’s first feature Lift to the Scaffold takes place over a slickly plot-driven, less than 24 hours. Its cinematographer Henri Decaë, who also shot the first films of Chabrol and Truffaut, used real light to create its intense black and white world and the camera is mobile and fluid. Watching it now, you get a sense of a society still recovering from war, with former soldiers – trained killers – not having found their place in it in peacetime, and what must have been the implicit resonance of the character of an overbearing and blatantly prosperous German tourist. And the leather-jacketed delinquent, half war-damaged, half a precursor of teenage rebellion to come.

Lift to the Scaffold has moments of suspense that made the screening room gasp in anticipation and also something I was unprepared for – moments of laughter at its wry observation, sly humour and, ultimately, the detached irony of its resolution. If you haven’t already seen this classic, seize this opportunity to see the restored print. Malle worked in both French cinema and Hollywood and over more than 30 years produced both French- and English-language films, including Lacombe Lucien, Atlantic City, My Dinner with Andre and Au revoir, les enfants. Lift to the Scaffold introduced key themes which recurred throughout his work.

Lift To The Scaffold is re-released in the UK on 7th February 2014

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