Elevator to the Gallows (1957): Louis Malle’s Impressive Debut

French (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud)

elevator_to_the_gallows_posterLouis Malle made a brilliant solo feature debut in 1957 with “Elevator to the Gallows,” which many critics consider to be the first work of the French New Wave. 
This movement was “officially” launched two years later with Truffaut’s “400 Blows,” Godard’s “Breathless,” and Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.”
This stylish noir policier, which marks the first pairing of Louis Malle and the great actress Jeanne Moreau, is set to the moody jazz of Miles Davis, a novelty at the time, and photographed with formal elegance by Henri Decae, the favorite cinematographer of Jean-Pierre Melville, a hero of the French New Wave directors. 
Dressed in black, the glamorous and sullen Moreau plays a woman intent on murdering her husband. She spends most of the yarn walking through the empty streets of Paris, looking for her lover.  It’s a passive role–especially by standards of film noir–and barley qualifies her a “femme fatale” type.  In voice-over narration, she expresses her yearning love and desire for 
Malle would later say that he intended his debut as a tribute to Robert Bresson, whom he admired for his “precision, discretion, truth, and authenticity. Short on plot but strong on mood, “Elevator to the Gallows” also reveals the influence of Jean-Pierre Melville (“Samurai,” “Bob Le Flambeur”).  There are not many characters in the film, either.
Louis Malle directed Moreau again “The Lovers,” a controversial film, and in the frivolous and visually spectacular tale, “Viva Maria”(1965), casting her against sex symbol Brigitte Bardot.

Detailed Plot (How the Narrative Unfolds)

elevator_to_the_gallows_5_malleFlorence Carala (Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) are illicit lovers who plan to kill Florence’s husband, Simon Carala (Wall), a wealthy industrialist who is Julien’s boss. Julien, an ex-Foreign Legion officer of Indochina and Algeria, climbs up the office on a rope, shoots Carala without being seen, and arranges the room to look like a suicide.

Seated in his convertible—as its top is slowly retracting—before pulling away from the office building he notices a rope hanging over the balcony, which provides evidence of his crime. Leaving the car running, he rushes back into the building, but while he is in the elevator, the security man switches off the power, and Julien is now trapped; the building is closed for the weekend.

elevator_to_the_gallows_4_malleJulien’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 and assumes that he has run off with Veronique,. She begins wandering the streets of Paris aimlessly and despondently.

Louis and Veronique spend the night in a motel, using fake names. They befriend Horst Bencker (Petrovich) and his wife Frieda (Andersen), a German tourist couple. Frieda takes pictures of Louis and her husband with Julien’s camera.  Louis attempts to steal their luxury car, but is caught by Bencker, who threatens him with a cigar tube, pretending it’s a gun.

elevator_to_the_gallows_2_malleLouis kills the couple with Julien’s handgun, and he and Veronique return to Paris. Convinced that they would be caught and go to jail, Veronique persuades Louis to join her in a suicide pact. They take an overdose of pills and pass out. When the Benckers’ bodies are discovered, along with Julien’s car and raincoat, Julien becomes the prime suspect, and his photo is printed in newspapers. The police arrive at the office building, and Julien is finally able to escape from the elevator without being seen. But, in a cafe, he is recognized and arrested.

 

elevator_to_the_gallows_1_malleThe police discover Carala’s body in his office, but do not suspect foul play. Julien is charged with killing the Benckers, as the police refuse to believe his alibi. The suicide attempt fails, and Veronique and Louis are alive. Louis then remembers Julien’s camera, which contains photos of him and Bencker. He drives back to the motel, hoping to recover the camera, and Florence pursues him, determined not to let him get away.

When the pictures are developed, they unexpectedly include photos of Julien and Florence shown embracing and kissing.  As a result, the police finally realize that Julien and Florence are guilty of plotting to kill her husband.

Read about Louis Malle’s Career

Cast
Jeanne Moreau as Florence Carala
Maurice Ronet as Julien Tavernier
Georges Poujouly as Louis
Yori Bertin as Véronique
Jean Wall as Simon Carala
Iván Petrovich as Horst Bencker
Félix Marten as Christian Subervie
Lino Ventura as Police Commissaire Cherrier
Elga Andersen as Frieda Bencker
Charles Denner as Police Inspector

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

 

Credits:

Directed by Louis Malle
Produced by Jean Thuillier
Screenplay by Louis Malle and Roger Nimier, based on the book “Ascenseur pour l’échafaud” by Noël Calef
Music by Miles Davis
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Edited by Léonide Azar
Release date: January 29, 1958
Running time: 88 minutes