Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

“Is there any movie that’s more perfectly French, more perfectly Parisian, and more perfectly 1950s than Louis Malle’s debut ‘Lift to the Scaffold’? Melville’s ‘Bob Le Flambeur’, perhaps, or Cocteau’s ‘Orphée’, but there is also in Malle’s movie a strong indication of the new directions French cinema would soon take.”

‘Lift to the Scaffold’, directed by Louis Malle in 1958, is a French crime drama and, in terms of editing and narrative techniques, one of the inspirations for the French New Wave style. Julien Tavernier and Florence Carala, played by Maurice Ronet and Jeanne Moreau, are lovers. Between them they hatch a plot to murder Carala’s husband, a wealthy industrialist. Using his military training, Tavernier breaks into the husband’s office and fakes a suicide, but unfortunately just as he is making his escape to meet Florence, he becomes trapped in a lift. This leads to a sequence of events that includes his car being stolen and an unconnected murder occurring. Florence also believes he has abandoned her, so as the police move in, she fails to offer the alibi he needs, which leads to the inevitable results that the movie’s title alludes to. It’s a tight thriller with strong, noirish influences. The scenes set in the lift, as Tavernier attempts to escape, are claustrophobic and tense, perfectly directed action sequences. This movie is as far from Malle’s cerebral and elegiac ‘Au revoir les enfants’, but the skill of the director can already be seen in the editing and the mise-en-scene. There is also a strong and unrelenting moral thread that runs through this film, the characters are shown to be self-aware and, for the most part, remorseful, but each also has a unsettling core of distanced emotion, particularly evident during the first murder. The deaths are bloodless, but this somehow adds to the feeling of clinical assassination that Malle is setting up. It’s a clean and efficient thriller.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a strong movie with enough entertaining twists and turns to keep the viewer occupied. Watch in a double bill with ‘Out of the Past’ for more noir…

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