Lift to the Scaffold aka Elevator to the Gallows (France: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud), 1958.
Directed by Louis Malle.
Starring Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly, Jean Wall and Yori Bertin.
A self-assured business man murders his employer, the husband of his adulterer, which unintentionally provokes an ill-fated chain of events.
The stuck-in-a-lift plot device grabs your attention. The opening action-sequence of Speed; Emilio Estevez’s short-lived role in Mission: Impossible and the Shyamalan-penned Devil. The claustrophobic, metallic space automatically creates a sense of urgency and tension. The silver-box, hanging by a taught, tight wire seems so fragile and yet it remains the spine of the modern skyscraper – who would walk up so many flights of stairs and remain, effortlessly cool?
Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold exploits this plot-device in all its cool glory. Rather than exclusively set in and around the “lift to the scaffold”, Malle playfully charts the knock on events of the leading man who has found himself stuck mid-floor. Interestingly, the title Ascenseur pour l’échafaud was translated to Elevator to the Gallows in the US, giving a deep sense of dread and danger that isn’t entirely accurate. The film is more playful and smoothly suave than the almost horror-focused US title dictates.
The tall building within Paris captures an industrialist, almost American, atmosphere. Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), like James Bond, is due to commit a murder. His boss, and the husband of his lover is Simon Carala (Jean Wall). He tactfully informs his secretary to not disturb him ensuring an alibi is in place. He creeps to the floor above. He delivers a document, raising the gun. Carala doesn’t believe he will shoot. Tavernier shoots – and sets the scene to look like suicide. Sneaking back into his office, he exits and bids adieu to his secretary. Sitting in his costly car, he looks up. The grappling hook used to climb to Carala’s office remains. Swiftly, he leaves the car running and, back into the office he travels up in the lift until security clocks out and turns the power off. Tavernier is stuck, his girlfriend, Carala’s wife (Jeanne Moreau), awaits him at a nearby café. And two teenagers look at his expensive car with the keys left in the ignition. The car seeks to be stolen.
From the opening credits, you are gently carried into this moody, Miles Davis-scored, night of unplanned events. Murder, illicit affairs, cops and robbers, guns and a riddle you can’t resolve (How will he escape the lift?) pull you into this cinematic sleaze. Sleazy in the way a tall and dark-haired man will seduce a married woman – though illicit, you can’t help but enjoy the sinful seducer’s charm. As Florence Carala searches for Tavernier, we hear her thoughts. Has he killed her husband? Has he left with a different woman? Her narration is the only one we hear and we are drawn into her own fears and sense of panic. The teenagers, Louis and Veronique begin as scooter-thieves and are promoted to car-thieves early on. Akin to Godard’s À bout de soufflé, this crime-plot heightens the tension alongside the murderous beginning that establishes the lift-locked Tavernier.
Lift to the Scaffold moves at a fast pace, and considering the lead character is trapped in an elevator for two thirds of the film, it is surprising how engaging the film is. Florence’s romantic, wistful voice-over lingers in the air long after she has spoken. Due to the jazz-score, the coolness is intoxicating. Exiting the film, the soothing and infectious confidence that oozes out of every pore, will seep into your blood stream. Though Malle doesn’t truly fit amongst the “nouvelle vague”, the tone of the film will resonate and draw you into the genre. You will be clamouring for a copy of Godard or Truffaut; Rohmer or Rivette. Lift to the Scaffold is accessible and memorable and a must-watch for any film “obsessionnel”.
Lift to the Scaffold is released on February 7th at BFI Southbank, Curzon Renoir, IFI Dublin and selected cinemas nationwide.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★