Elevator to the Gallows
|Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
Elevator to the Gallows
Original theatrical poster
|Directed by||Louis Malle|
|Produced by||Jean Thuillier|
|Written by||Noël Calef
|Music by||Miles Davis|
|Edited by||Léonide Azar|
|Distributed by||Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France|
|29 January 1958 (France)
10 June 1961 (US)
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud is a 1958 French crime film directed by Louis Malle. It was released as Elevator to the Gallows in the USA (aka Frantic) and as Lift to the Scaffold in the UK. It stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as criminal lovers whose perfect crime begins to unravel when Ronet is trapped in an elevator. The film is often associated by critics with the film noir style. According to recent studies, it introduces very peculiar narrative and editing techniques so that it can be considered a very important experience at the base of the Nouvelle Vague and the so-called New Modern Cinema.
The film presents also unique and completely new solutions in the history of cinema in the relationship between music and image. The score by Miles Davis has been described by jazz critic Phil Johnson as "the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep."
Florence Carala (Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Ronet) are illicit lovers who plan to kill Florence's husband, Simon Carala (Wall), a wealthy industrialist who is also Julien's boss. Julien, an ex-Foreign Legion parachutist officer veteran of Indochina and Algeria, climbs up the office block on a rope, shoots Carala in his office without being seen, and arranges the room to make it look like a suicide.
Now past business closing hours, seated at the curb in his convertible—as its top is slowly retracting—just before pulling away from the office building he glances up to its high floors, and he sees a rope hanging over the balcony edge, which is evidence of his crime. He must retrace his steps, and leaving the car running, he rushes back into the building. But while he is ascending in an elevator, the building custodian, or security man, switches off the power to the elevators, and Julien is now trapped—as the building is shut down for the weekend.
Julien's car is stolen by a young couple, small-time crook Louis (Poujouly) and flower-seller Veronique (Bertin). Florence, who is waiting for Julien at a cafe, sees the car go by and Veronique leaning out of the window. She assumes that Julien has run off with Veronique, and wanders the Paris streets despondently all night. Louis and Veronique spend the night in a motel, checking in under the name "Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier," and make the acquaintance of Horst Bencker (Petrovich) and his wife Frieda (Andersen), a German tourist couple. Frieda takes pictures of Louis and her husband with Julien's miniature camera.
After the Benckers go to bed, Louis attempts to steal their luxury car. Bencker catches Louis and threatens him with a "gun" (really a cigar tube). Louis shoots and kills the couple with Julien's handgun. Louis and Veronique return to Paris and hide out in Veronique's flat. Convinced that their crime will be discovered and they will go to jail, Veronique persuades Louis to join her in a suicide pact. They take an overdose of pills and pass out. The Benckers' bodies are discovered, along with Julien's car, handgun, and raincoat; Julien therefore becomes the prime suspect in their deaths, and his picture is printed in the morning newspapers. The police, seeking Julien, arrive at the office building. Julien is finally able to escape from the elevator without being seen, but, in a cafe, is quickly recognized and arrested.
Meanwhile, the police discover Carala's body in his office, but do not suspect foul play - they believe that it was a suicide. Julien is charged with killing the Benckers, and the police refuse to believe his alibi of being stuck in an elevator. Florence believes Julien's story, and goes to seek out Veronique. Her suicide attempt failed; she and Louis are both alive, but drowsy. Florence confronts the young couple and accuses them of killing the Benckers. Louis still believes that there is no evidence connecting him with the crime, then remembers Julien's camera which contains photographs of him and Bencker. He left the camera at the motel, and drives back there in the hope of recovering the camera before anyone can develop the pictures. Florence pursues him, determined not to let him get away. At the motel, the photographs have been developed. Because of the picture of Louis and Bencker, Louis will indeed be charged with murdering the German tourists. However, the camera also contained photographs of Julien and Florence, embracing and smiling. The police realize that Julien and Florence were lovers, and that they plotted to kill Florence's husband. Both will go on trial for Carala's death.
Personnel and critical response
Malle cast Moreau in this, his first film, after seeing her in the Paris stage production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. For Time, the journalist Barry Farrell wrote: "Moreau had 20 forgettable films behind her. ... Malle put Moreau under an honest light and wisely let his camera linger. The film was nothing special, but it did accomplish one thing: it proposed a new ideal of cinematic realism, a new way to look at a woman. All the drama in the story was in Moreau's face – the face that had been hidden behind cosmetics and flattering lights in all her earlier films. When Malle [would make] The Lovers the following year, it was obvious who his woman would be. For one thing, he had discovered her, and for another, they were in love."
- Farrell, Barry, "Actresses: Making the Most of Love" (subscription access only), Time cover story pp. 4-5, March 5, 1965. Retrieved 2015-03-21.
- Linda Rasmussen. "Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud - synopsis". AllMovie.com. Retrieved 2013-10-05.
- Daniele, Romina (2011). Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, Il luogo della musica nell'audiovisione. Milan, Italy: RDM. ISBN 9788890490590.
A detailed analysis on the movie and on this relationship from a critical, linguistic and aesthetical point of view, can be found on this book.
- Phil Johnson, "Discs: Jazz—Miles Davis/Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Fontana)", Independent on Sunday, 14 March 2004.
- Life to the Scaffold at the Internet Movie Database
- Elevator to the Gallows at Rotten Tomatoes
- Ascenseur pour l'échafaud at AllMovie
- "Louis Malle on the Ground Floor" essay by Terrence Rafferty at The Criterion Collection