Ex-paratrooper Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is seen leaving his office, not conventionally through the door, but instead out of the window. Dexterously clambering up the side of the building like a cat burglar, he breaks into the office of Carala (Jean Wall) his boss and the husband of his lover Florence (Jeanne Moreau). Julian kills him with little fuss and sets about making the incident look like a suicide. However, whilst clambering into his car he realizes he has left a rope dangling out of the window. Rushing back to remove all trace of his crime, Julien finds himself trapped in an elevator – the concierge having closed the building during his return. To make matters worse, outside Julien’s car is stolen by a hot headed youth (Georges Poujouly) and his girlfriend (Yori Bertin) who take off on their own crime spree. With Julien indisposed and his car now sought after by the police, Florence is left to wander the streets of Paris alone, left to question Julien’s tenacity and the authenticity of his love.
One of cinema’s true chameleons, Malle’s future oeuvre would explore various avenues of the cinematic atlas. He continued to work throughout his career within the left bank of French directors (those who saw cinema as rooted within the classic arts, yet still practiced cinematic modernism) yet refused to abide by the dogma asserted by the Nouvelle Vague. Whilst Lift to the Scaffold is seen by many as the pioneering film of the French New Wave, Malle’s function in its conception has often been belittled by purists. However, the film’s reverential amalgamation of tense suspense sequences influenced by Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock with the spiritual meditation reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s oeuvre was on the whole met with admiration by many of his contemporaries.
Miles Davis’ energizing score is the fabric that unites the film’s binary narrative. Helping mask Malle’s relative inexperience, Davis’ score becomes the lifeblood of the film, helping maintain the pulsating tempo required of this stifling thriller whilst simultaneously tapping into the zeitgeist of 1950’s Paris. Shifting from plaintive, melancholic tones to rambunctious rhythms, the frenetic tempo of this score mirrors the ambience of a nation basking in a post-war economic boom, yet beleaguered by international pressure to liberate its colonies.
Characters are shot under an unforgiving light, exposing their true nature in order for the audience to investigate their motives. This may point to Lift to the Scaffold’s doomed romanticism as an attempt to mirror the growing anxiety toward the Algerian war of independence, a belief shared by Julien who feels no empathy when murdering Carla – a man who made his fortune from the suffering of others in the Indochina war. The economic prosperity of France compared to the poverty in its colonies is exhibited through Malle’s belligerent depiction of humanity, with a palpable sense of national denunciation visible throughout the film. Depicting the subsidiary contriteness of the collective psyche may not have been Malle’s primary intent, yet the film’s flawed protagonists undeniably reflect the nation’s growing disquiet.
Lift to the Scaffold may not have been the inaugural Nouvelle Vague film many claim it to be, yet it certainly highlights changing attitudes within the French film industry. Malle’s distortion of the conventional crime narrative, combined with a storyline divided between two couples elegantly presents us with a visual metaphor for the baton of cinema being passed down from one generation to the next.