Elevator to the Gallows

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Elevator to the Gallows/
Lift to the Scaffold
Original theatrical poster
Directed byLouis Malle
Screenplay byLouis Malle
Roger Nimier
Based onAscenseur pour l'échafaud
1956 novel
by Noël Calef
Produced byJean Thuillier
CinematographyHenri Decaë
Edited byLéonide Azar
Music byMiles Davis
Distributed byLux Compagnie Cinématographique de France
Release date
  • 29 January 1958 (1958-01-29)
Running time
91 minutes

Elevator to the Gallows (French: Ascenseur pour l'échafaud), also known as Frantic in the US and Lift to the Scaffold in the UK, is a 1958 French crime thriller film directed by Louis Malle, starring Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as illicit lovers whose murder plot starts to unravel after one of them becomes trapped in an elevator. The scenario was adapted from the 1956 novel of the same name by Noël Calef.

Associated by some critics with film noir,[1] and introducing new narrative, cinematographic, and editing techniques, the film is considered an important work in establishing the French New Wave and the New Modern Cinema.[2] The improvised soundtrack by Miles Davis and the relationship the film establishes among music, image, and emotion were considered ground-breaking.


Lovers Florence Carala and Julien Tavernier make a plan to kill Florence's husband Simon, a wealthy French industrialist who is also Julien's boss. Staying late at the office one Saturday, Julien, an ex-Foreign Legion parachutist and veteran of the Indochinese and Algerian wars, uses a rope to climb up the outside of the building to Simon's office and shoots Simon with Simon's own gun, afterward arranging the room to make it look like a suicide. He then makes his way back to his office and leaves the building with a secretary and security guard, who are to be his alibis. When he gets into his convertible, he glances up and sees he left the rope hanging from the building. Leaving the engine running, he rushes back into the building and boards the elevator. As it ascends, the security guard switches off the power and locks up for the weekend, trapping Julien between floors.

Moments later, Julien's car is stolen by Louis, a young small-time crook, and his girlfriend Véronique, a flower shop assistant. Waiting for Julien at a nearby café, Florence sees the car go by, with Véronique leaning out the window. Assuming Julien could not go through with their plan and has picked up Véronique, she wanders the Paris streets despondently all night, searching for him in local bars and clubs.

Louis puts on Julien's coat and pockets Julien's revolver, which Véronique finds in the glovebox. They drive back and forth on the highway for hours, until some Germans in a sporty Mercedes challenge Louis to a race. He follows them to a motel just off the highway, and the German driver, the jovial Horst Bencker, invites Louis and Véronique to have a drink with him and his wife Frieda. Both couples check in and, while they chat, Frieda takes a few pictures of Louis and her husband with Julien's camera. She finishes the roll, so Véronique drops the film off at the motel's photo lab.

After the Benckers go to bed, Louis, worried because Horst had figured out he is not Julien Tavernier and annoyed because Horst had not taken him more seriously, attempts to steal the Mercedes, but Horst catches him and threatens him with a cigar tube held like a gun. Louis impulsively shoots and kills both Horst and Frieda with Julien's gun, firing until it is empty. He and Véronique return to Paris in the Mercedes and hide in Véronique's apartment. Convinced they will be caught and separated, Véronique persuades Louis they should commit suicide, so they both swallow phenobarbital pills and go to sleep.

Because Véronique registered at the motel using the names "Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier" to avoid problems for Louis, who is wanted for petty crimes, and Julien's car, gun, and raincoat are found next to the Benckers' corpses, the police name Julien as the prime suspect. Officers go to search his office, escorted by the security guard, who eventually discovers Simon's body. Meanwhile, with the building's power back on, Julien finally escapes from the elevator. Unaware his picture is in the morning newspapers in connection to the Bencker case, he goes to the café for some breakfast, but is quickly recognized, arrested, and charged with killing the Benckers, the police refusing to believe his alibi of being stuck in an elevator.

Florence, determined to clear Julien, gets Véronique's address from the florist. She finds Véronique and Louis drowsy, but alive, and calls the police with an anonymous tip. Louis reads the newspaper and thinks he has gotten away with murder, until Véronique reminds him of the roll of film. He rushes to the motel's photo lab, tailed by Florence, but finds the pictures have already been developed, and he is arrested. Florence enters the lab, and the police show her the photographs of her and Julien that were on the roll, which make it clear they were secret lovers and give them a motive for killing her husband. Commissaire Cherrier says Florence will probably get a harsher sentence than Julien, but she, almost in a trance, replies that she did what she did for love and she and Julien will one day be reunited.


Jean-Claude Brialy makes an uncredited appearance as a motel guest.


This low-budget black-and-white production was 24-year-old Louis Malle's first feature film. He had previously worked with Jacques Cousteau for several years, and was credited as co-director of the documentary The Silent World (1956).

Malle cast Moreau after seeing her in the Paris stage production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She had already been in a number of films, but her role in this film is often considered her breakthrough. Malle filmed her without the heavy makeup and extreme lighting that previous directors had demanded. Scenes of Moreau wandering down the Champs Elysees at night were shot on fast film from a baby carriage using only available light from the street and shop windows.


Miles Davis's score for the film is considered by many to be groundbreaking,[2] with jazz critic Phil Johnson describing it as "The loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep."[3] Richard Brody, movie critic and writer for the New Yorker, wrote that the score itself is “better than the film, by far”.[4]

Organising the recording[edit]

Davis, an already well known and highly regarded jazz performer and composer, had received an invitation in 1957 to go to Europe as a solo artist to perform in a three week tour of Europe. Davis had just abandoned his first great quintet of 1955-56, including the legendary saxophone player John Coltrane, due to their addiction to heroin. He was beginning to try and live a healthier life, although he was still using cocaine.[5] Additionally, Davis had been experiencing an immense amount of racism, on a daily basis, during his time performing as a jazz artist, therefore he was happy to have the opportunity to leave America for a while.[6]

Marcel Romano, promoter and jazz enthusiast, picked Davis up from the airport in November 1957 with the initial intention of telling him he would feature in a film about jazz.[6] However, this plan fell through before Davis had even arrived. Instead, the film technician for the project, Jean-Claude Rappeneau, who Romano had hired for the project, mentioned that he had been working on a feature film with the young director Louis Malle who had an interest in jazz music.[6] Romano told Davis about the film and said that Davis seemed interested in the project so they organised a private screening for him. Davis took notes, asking questions about the relationships between the characters and explanations of the plot. He wrote later in his autobiography that that he agreed to the job because he had never written music for a film before and it was a great learning experience for him.[5]

While touring through Europe Davis asked for a piano to be brought to his hotel room and over the next two weeks he begun to improvise some themes that would be used in the movie.[4] Davis chose to use his band of musicians that he had been performing with on his European tour for the project. The band was composed of Barney Wilen, saxophonist, René Urtreger, pianist, Pierre Michelot, bassist and Kenny Clarke, drummer. They had only been informed about the project a couple of days prior and went into the session unprepared, having not even seen the film yet.

On the 4th of December, 1957, at 10pm Davis, along with his band of Parisian musicians, and American drummer, went to the Le Post Parisian studios to record the score. The band drank together for an hour, played for four hours, then took two hours of editing, and left the studio by 5am the next day having finished the score for Ascender Pour L’Échafaud.[7]

Musical analysis[edit]

The soundtrack features eight of Davis's extended improvisations, all recorded in the four hour session. The only song that had been mapped out in detail was “Sur L’Autoroute”, and Davis gave minimal instructions to the band for the rest of the soundtrack. He gave them two chordal structures, D minor and C seventh chords, and they improvised around these.[8] Scales rather than chords took precedence, maintaining harmonic simplicity and fragmenting the themes.[4][6] Pierre Michelot said in a 1988 interview, “What characterised the session is the absence of a defined theme."[4]

The mood of the soundtrack is described as generally “dour and somber” [8] but the pace is picked up on tracks such as “Dîner au Motel”. The songs “Générique” and "L'Assassinat de Carala” feature Davis’ distinctive trumpet style that is echoed through dire straits or death wish motifs.[8] Phil Johnson further described the soundtrack as a “powerfully expressive, highly concentrated, freely inspired performance".[4]

Legacy of the score[edit]

Elevator to the Gallows witnessed Davis’ iconic theory of modal jazz being developed.[4] Modal jazz becomes highly influential in the late 50s and 60s, switching from the chorally dense sound of bebop. Davis opened up a new gateway between composition and improvisation in this soundtrack, a new pathway which he would explore in the quintessential modal jazz album Kind of Blue.[6] This style of music would not only influence future jazz musicians but the sound of film noir itself. Richard Brody highlights this in his article, writing, “The use of jazz and jazz-derived soundtracks became so predominant, that jazz came to seem like the natural backdrop for high-speed chases, mass mayhem, and cold-blooded murder, because the films for which jazz players were enlisted were uniformly violent.”.[4]

Critical response[edit]

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 [made] 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.[9]

In a review written for the film's 2005 theatrical re-release, Roger Ebert observed that Moreau's face when Florence is pondering Julien's whereabouts "is often illuminated only by the lights of the cafes and shops that she passes; at a time when actresses were lit and photographed with care, these scenes had a shock value, and influenced many films to come." He further argued that Louis and Veronique were a precursor to the young couple in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960).[10] In a 2016 article, New Yorker film critic Richard Brody claimed the film is more important for its place in French film history than for its own artistic merits, with the exception of Davis's score, which he said "is worth hearing entirely on its own. It's better than the film itself, by far, and there are better ways to hear it than in the movie—namely, by listening to a CD that features the entire studio sessions from which the score was edited." Brody then went on to discuss the music in some detail.[11]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 93% rating, based on 56 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.08/10.[12] On Metacritic, it holds a rating of 94/100.[13]


There have been two film adaptations of Calef's novel since Malle's version: Shikeidai No Erebêtâ (2010), by Japanese filmmaker Akira Ogata, and Weekend (2013), by Russian filmmaker Stanislav Govorukhin.


  1. ^ Rasmussen, Linda. "Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud - synopsis". AllMovie. Retrieved 5 October 2013.
  2. ^ a b 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 in this book.
  3. ^ Johnson, Phil (14 March 2004), "Discs: Jazz—Miles Davis/Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Fontana)", Independent on Sunday
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Brody, Richard. "Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows," and Its Historic Miles Davis Soundtrack". New Yorker. The New Yorker. Retrieved 31 October 2023.
  5. ^ a b Davis, Miles (1989). Miles: The Autobiography (First ed.). New York, New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 209. ISBN 978-0-671-72582-2.
  6. ^ a b c d e Waring, Charles. "'Ascenseur Pour L'Échafaud': Miles Davis' Groundbreaking Foray Into Modal Jazz". UDiscoverMusic. UDiscoverMusic. Retrieved 31 October 2023.
  7. ^ Mas, Simon. "The Neglected Gem of MILES DAVIS' Discography". YouTube. YouTube. Retrieved 31 October 2023.
  8. ^ a b c Nastos, Michael. G. "Ascenseur pour l'Échafaud [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] Review". Allmusic. Allmusic. Retrieved 31 October 2023.
  9. ^ Farrell, Barry, "Actresses: Making the Most of Love" (subscription access only), Time cover story pp. 4-5, 5 March 1965. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
  10. ^ Ebert, Roger (15 September 2005). "Elevator to the Gallows Movie Review (2005)". Retrieved 26 July 2016.
  11. ^ Brody, Richard (3 August 2016). "Lous Malle's 'Elevator to the Gallows' and Its Historic Miles Davis Soundtrack". The New Yorker. Retrieved 17 November 2020.
  12. ^ "Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (Lift to the Scaffold) (Frantic)". Rotten Tomatoes. 10 June 1958. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  13. ^ "Frantic [re-release]". Metacritic.

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