The great Louis Malle’s 1957 directorial debut, “Ascenseur pour l’échafaud” (known as “Elevator to the Scaffold” in the U.S.) is a stylish and – dare one say so – sexy thriller. In its best sequences, it is worthy of comparison not only to other French noir contemporaries such as Jules Dassin’s “Du rififi chez les hommes”, but also, on the other side of the Channel/pond, the work of Alfred Hitchcock. However, the question one must raise in reviewing this film, and particularly when considering whether or not to recommend it to others, is whether style triumphs over substance.
Florence Carala (played by a young Jeanne Moreau) is the wife of an older, somewhat shady and successful Parisian businessman working in what today we would call, per Eisenhower, the military-industrial complex. She has been having an affair with one of his employees, a former French military officer named Julien Tavernier (the appropriately stoic Maurice Ronet.) As the film begins we come to understand that they have agreed to have Julien murder her husband, making it look like a suicide. They are supposed to meet at a local cafe after Julien has done the deed and run away together.
Things go awry when Julien goes out to his car, parked across the street from the office building, and realizes that he has left some evidence of the crime. He goes back to retrieve the evidence but ends up trapped in the building elevator when the power is shut down for the weekend. In the meantime Florence, waiting for Julien at the rendez-vous point, then sees his car drive by with Veronique, a girl whom she recognizes, in the passenger seat, not realizing that the car has been stolen by the girl and Louis, her wannabe-hood boyfriend.
This sets up several parallel storylines which Malle handles adroitly in holding our interest. Malle cuts back and forth between Julien, trying to find a way out of the elevator without drawing attention to himself; Florence wandering around a rainy Paris, ostensibly looking for Julien but simultaneously starting to lose her mind; and Veronique and Louis on their joyride, which escalates out of control. Eventually the police become involved, and as anyone who is familiar with French films knows, once the Paris police get involved, it’s all pretty much over.
Jeanne Moreau, engaging as always, is idolized by the camera, creating scenes that are like a moving-picture version of a 1950’s Vogue magazine spread as Florence Carala stumbles along the sidewalks of Paris, stopping in at her lover’s known haunts in a fruitless quest to see if anyone has had news of him. She begins mumbling to herself and starting to go off the deep end as the rain pours down, putting us in mind somewhat of a contemporary Ophelia. But of course unlike Ophelia, Florence Carala is no innocent, ill-used by men: she is more of a cousin to Clytemnestra. When the plot begins to clear up, she knows exactly what to do with respect to Louis and Veronique to try to get Julien – and herself – out of the mess they have all fallen into.
The sequences where Julien tries to extricate himself from the elevator car are virtually silent, filled with thrilling near-misses, human ingenuity, and yet no dialogue. Malle’s direction makes us root for the man, for the time forgetting that he is, in fact, both a murderer and an adulterer. As it is made very clear from the beginning that he is a trained paratrooper, we never think that Julien’s efforts to solve the problem he finds himself in are unbelievable.
Even the characters of Louis and Veronique, at least at first, are engaging in their way. Veronique is something of a local busybody, and as the film develops we get the sense that she is a bit off the beam herself. Why does she know so much information about Julien, when she is just an assistant in a flower shop? Why is she so matter-of-fact when two murders take place, and yet has childish ideas as to what happens when someone is shot? Is there symbolic importance in the fact that her bedsit is covered in art prints where Van Gogh is the most heavily represented?
The character of Louis is very easy to recognize. He is the wavy-haired, Schott-jacketed, lanky teenager who wishes he was as cool as James Dean or Marlon Brando. We can sense that up until this point, he may have gotten into some trouble, but it has all been very minor; he has not even been with a woman yet. When he ignores the ramblings of Veronique we chuckle to ourselves in the way that he does so. What happens subsequently, while a combination of his own stupidity and rash temper, becomes increasingly meaningless as he wakes up too late to what he has gotten himself into.
It is in the ending of the film where, frankly, I was somewhat disappointed. Everything is wrapped up, as it should be in noir thrillers, but in a somewhat unsatisfying way. The police get their man – or rather, men – and their molls, the crimes are solved, and all is revealed. Yet in the final sequences when Florence goes off on one of her loopy inward monologues again, we are left wishing there had been something more. The climax, if the reader will forgive the term, is anti-climactic.
That being said, for those who are fans of beautiful movie-making in general, not just French cinema, I highly recommend spending a rainy weekend afternoon taking in this picture. Both the cast and Paris look absolutely beautiful, the black-and-white film having a glorious richness and depth of hue and texture, and the variety of shots involved – from cranes to impossible angles to slightly out of focus close-ups suddenly coming into focus – delight the eye. The soundtrack, composed and performed by Miles Davis, fits perfectly within the film, giving it a heightened stylishness very much of its time. And the story itself, while not perfect, is good enough that we really do want to see what happens next and how this mess of mistaken identities, entrapment, and missed connections is going to work itself out.
The style here is, in my opinion, ultimately greater than the substance, but there is still plenty of substance for anyone but the most morose filmgoer to appreciate.