Each week a different film not in the English language will come under scrutiny. First up is Louis Malle’s 1958 French crime drama, Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator To The Gallows), one of the key influences behind the Nouvelle Vague.
If the work of Jean-Pierre Melville laid the foundations of the Nouvelle Vague, then it might be fair to say that with Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud Louis Malle concludes with the empty building that would house the movement being fully erected. That Malle would never fully return to the stylistic tone that he helped create is proof, if proof were needed, of the versatile nature of the anti-auteur’s oeuvre.
Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud holds a fairly basic premise, yet this simple set up is contradicted by all manner of narrative flourishes throughout. What begins as the fairly familiar film noir adage of a man killing the husband of his lover spirals into a situation involving mistaken identity, misinterpretation and the inevitability of fate. The “man” of the tale, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) sets out one day to murder his boss, as he is having an affair with the man’s younger wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau). Having committed the act, Tavernier realises that he has left behind incriminating evidence that ties him to the scene of the crime, and it is with this, Tavernier’s decision to re-enter the office block where the murder took place in order to remove the evidence, that fate takes over and throws our scenario into disarray. As he takes the office block’s elevator to the level on which the murder took place the buildings power is cut, and Tavernier is left trapped within the confines of the elevator for 48 hours.
As Tavarnier lay trapped in the office block, the attention of the film shifts towards Veronique and Louis, a young couple who steal Tavernier’s car and head off to the countryside for the night. As they reach their location, they befriend a German couple; only for Louis to kill the pair after an attempt to steal their car goes awry. Tavernier is framed for this second crime, unable to prove where he was all weekend, as such a revelation would pin him to the scene of the initial crime. All the while the film is underpinned by Florence’s attempts to find Tavernier, as she is unaware of his entrapment in the office block elevator. As the narrative spirals towards its uncertain climax, this chain of events intertwine wholly, provoking confusion and ultimately resolution through a combination of chance, detective skills and unreliable methods of suicide.
The seemingly constant forcing of tension on screen really adds to the viewing experience, helped immeasurably by the film’s most memorable location, the elevator that proves worthy of its English translation by keeping Tavernier trapped in it for the duration. The elevator isn’t the sole location to exude a suffocatory nature though, with the motel that Louis and Veronique proving suitably isolated, and the entire narrative journey of Florence being somewhat secluded from reality in terms of her relationship with the outside world as she wanders aimless and lost. That the actress providing the performance, a make-up-less Jeanne Moreau in an unfamiliar area of cinema was also somewhat out of her comfort zone only adds to the overall feeling of unknowing.
The overall tense tone of the film lends heavily from Hitchcock and Clouzot, with the British director’s tenure in the States at its commercial peak in France at the time. As a result, the fingerprints of Hitchcock’s Notorious and Spellbound can be found all over Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud, be it in the look of the visuals or tone of the pacing, or even in less obvious manners such as the wit of the piece.
Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud is scored to a wonderfully evocative soundtrack created especially for the film by Miles Davis. The score works best with the aforementioned “wandering” scenes, and really does feel complimentary to the highest degree, and also maintains a unique ambience that has far from being replicated all these years on. The progressive nature of the film being scored to a jazz ensemble is indicative of the forward thinking nature of the film itself. The film is also “scored” to the sound of thunder, that is generally devoid of any of the other traits of a lightening storm, such as rain or actual lightning. Generally the noise is used to accompany a dramatic beat, and is obviously an attempt at encouraging a specific response from its audience. That the sound of thunder is at one point laid over the sight of a flickering neon sign, aping the look of lightening to a T, is testament to the wit of the film. Make no mistake though; the sight of a heart-broken Jeanne Moreau wandering down the Champs Elysees to the dulcet tones of Miles Davis is a sight to behold, and confirms the schizophrenic tone of Malle’s film.
The film closes with the sound of a conversation that mirrors the opening exchange between Florence and Tavernier, and as well as neatly wrapping up the film it sets a stylistic precedent that would go on to be developed during the years of the Nouvelle Vague. While it may not appear to be the end of an era, I would argue that Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud was the final film of the pre-New Wave era, at least within the confines of the director led crime dramas that would come to form a huge part of what made the Nouvelle Vague what it was. Indeed there are many asides as to what one could expect in the years following Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud, in terms of the Nouvelle Vague. Yori Bertin’s Veronique is almost a blueprint for Seberg’s Patricia Francini in À Bout de Souffle, or indeed the other female roles from Godard’s Gun and a Girl period, while Georges Poujouly’s Louis is the archetypal “angry young man” that would go on to define the likes of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and again, À Bout de Souffle.
That Louis appears to be named after the film’s maker may simply be an interesting coincidence, it’s funny that the autobiographical, which one could say was the only consistent trait of Malle’s body of work, still manages to worm its way into Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud, even if it’s only trivial. That traits of the new wave are most prevalent in the younger couple is of key significance; I noted throughout the film that several on screen acts gave the impression that the baton to the Nouvelle Vague was being passed via the characters within the film, with the way in which Louis steals Tavernier’s car clearly outlining this intention. That Tavernier was formerly a soldier, a typical protagonist of the cinema of the 1950’s, both in France but especially abroad, is telling if only in Malle’s treatment of the conventions of this particular character model.
As an audience we are given enough information to decipher the plot to an extent, for example we know that Tavernier was a decorated soldier, and therefore should be able to get himself out of the lift situation, yet he fails to do so without the good fortune that a night watchman brings with him. We are seeing the conventions of the cinema being manipulated and deconstructed, one of the key mannerisms that would go on to be explored further within the new wave. At times Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud actually feels like a pre-reaction to the new wave, as opposed to a precursor to it. Such is the length of the influence of the film, it feels as though it couldn’t possibly have existed first. That Malle was only 24 years old when this, his debut was produced makes the assured confidence on display all the more impressive.
Similarly to the way in which the Nouvelle Vague did, Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud owes a great debt to the American cinema that came before it. In a manner no different to Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, we have a clear set of narrative rules and characters that follow the US standard rather closely, even down to echoing the American obsession with contextually relevant remorse and justice. Stylistically the French take on American genre filmmaking is very different though, with emphasis being on the subtleties that may have escaped the workmanlike system of the days of the old Hollywood. That Malle also chose to keep his leading man stranded in one location for the duration of the film strikes as a wide deviation from that of the norm too.
The political subtext of the film, in which the victim of the opening murder is a businessman that has profited greatly from the spoils of war (an incredibly bold notion for the late 1950?s), provides the film with a surprisingly contemporary slant, dictating that Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud remains a staggering work 60 years after its initial release.
Adam Batty is the Editor of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, and can be found on Twitter.