Elevator to the Gallows

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Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
Elevator to the Gallows
Ascenseur echafaud.jpg
Original theatrical poster
Directed by Louis Malle
Produced by Jean Thuillier
Written by Noël Calef
Louis Malle
Roger Nimier
Starring Jeanne Moreau
Maurice Ronet
Georges Poujouly
Yori Bertin
Jean Wall
Iván Petrovich
Félix Marten
Lino Ventura
Music by Miles Davis
Cinematography Henri Decaë
Edited by Léonide Azar
Distributed by Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France
Release dates
  • 29 January 1958 (1958-01-29)
Running time
88 minutes
Country France
Language French

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud is a 1958 French crime film directed by Louis Malle. It was released as Elevator to the Gallows in the United States, where it had also been released as Frantic, and as Lift to the Scaffold in the United Kingdom. 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.[1] The film introduced new narrative and editing techniques. The film is considered an important work in establishing the Nouvelle Vague and the New Modern Cinema.[2]

Its score by Miles Davis and the relationship the film establishes between music and image were also considered groundbreaking.


Florence Carala (Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Ronet) are lovers who plan to kill Florence's husband, Simon Carala (Wall), a wealthy industrialist who is also Julien's boss. Julien is an ex-Foreign Legion parachutist officer and a veteran of Indochina and Algeria. After working late on a Saturday, he climbs up one story on the outside of the office building on a rope, shoots Carala in his office without being seen, and arranges the room to make it look like a suicide.

It is 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 and he sees his rope hanging over the balcony edge in plain sight. He leaves the car running and rushes back into the building. While he is ascending in an elevator, the building custodian, or security man, switches off the power to the elevators, and Julien is trapped between floors.

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 with Veronique leaning out of the window. She assumes that Julien has run off with Veronique and wanders the Paris streets despondently all night asking for him in the bars and clubs where he is known. Whiel joy-riding and racing other cars, Louis puts on Julien's coat and gloves. Checking into a motel, they register under the name "Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier" to avoid problems for Louis, who is wanted for petty crimes. At the motel, they make the acquaintance of Horst Bencker (Petrovich) and his wife Frieda (Andersen), a German tourist couple, against whom they have been racing on local roads. Frieda takes pictures of Louis and her husband with Julien's miniature camera.

After the Benckers go to bed, Louis attempts to steal their Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing. Bencker catches Louis and threatens him with what appears to be a gun, though it is 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 is quickly recognized in a cafe 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.


Malle cast Moreau after seeing her in the Paris stage production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The film's score is considered by many as groundbreaking.[2] 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."[3]

Critical response[edit]

For Time, the journalist Barry Farrell wrote:[4]

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.

The film holds a 92% "Certified Fresh" rating on review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes, based on 50 critic reviews.[5] The film also holds a rating of 92/100 on Metacritic, indicating "universal acclaim."[6] In a 2005 review for the film's theatrical re-release, Roger Ebert noted 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 an important precursor to the controversial young couple of Jean-Luc Godard's better-known Breathless (1960).[7]


  1. ^ Linda Rasmussen. "Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud - synopsis". AllMovie.com. 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 on this book. 
  3. ^ Phil Johnson, "Discs: Jazz—Miles Davis/Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Fontana)", Independent on Sunday, 14 March 2004.
  4. ^ Farrell, Barry, "Actresses: Making the Most of Love" (subscription access only), Time cover story pp. 4-5, 5 March 1965. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
  5. ^ "Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (Lift to the Scaffold) (Frantic)". Rotten Tomatoes. 
  6. ^ "Frantic [re-release]". Metacritic. 
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (15 September 2005). "Elevator to the Gallows Movie Review (2005)". Retrieved 26 July 2016. 

External links[edit]