In Profile: Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Jeanne Moreau in New Wave thriller Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Teenage angst, a will to belong and reckless love: George Jepson sees a lot for modern audiences to relate to in Louis Malle’s New Wave thriller…

Somehow part of but distinctly separate from the Nouvelle Vague, never letting himself settle on a genre or theme for more than a single film, Louis Malle is eclecticism defined. Crafted from the mould of classic noir his first picture, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud/ Lift to the Scaffold (1958), critic Terrence Rafferty says, is Malle “testing himself, the way a young poet might flex his or her muscles with a conventional form like the sonnet”.

The bare bones of the story are lifted from a little known novel by Noel Calef; retaining the noir-gone-European elements that would be exposed to a more international audience two years later in Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. A harbinger to the Franco revitalisation of noir would come to define the career of Jean-Pierre Melville, most distinctively in his masterpiece Le Samourai (1967).

Adapted by Malle and Roger Nimier, the narrative is a tale of duplicity gone awry. Julien Tavernier’s (Maurice Ronet) murder of his boss, the husband of his mistress Florence (Jeanne Moreau, pictured), is executed with the technique of a professional killer (or a decorated WWII officer); except that upon fleeing the crime scene he notices that he has neglected to remove a damning piece of evidence. Attempting to resolve the issue, he is instead accidently trapped in a lift, giving budding young criminal Louis (Georges Poujoly) the chance to steal his car and take his girlfriend Veronique – played by Yori Bertin, who takes all of 30 seconds convincing to ride in the stolen automobile — for a particularly illegal jaunt around Paris and the surrounding areas.

“Lift to the Scaffold’s central thematic strand seems to be the tangling of human impulses – to kill, to steal, to love, or die”

Lift to the Scaffold’s central thematic strand seems to be the tangling of human impulses – to kill, to steal, to love, or die – and in this Malle’s characters are not fully human, their two-dimensionality instead evokes in each a single fundamental flaw. Clearly, for Julien and Florence it is love; they become so consumed by their feelings that desperation is their only way out (naturally through murder). Their problem is somehow pure, as is the European tendency toward Romanticism, and spelled out in capitals by the film’s final images: the developing photographs of the lovers in various embraces, all smiles and laughter, belying the grisly fate that awaits them.

Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Perhaps more interesting, however, are the actions of the younger couple. Louis is frustrated, rendered impotent by his being born too late to gain some form of masculine status through the war (being Malle’s namesake one cannot help but see the 24-year-old director feeling a personal affinity with the troubled teen). Unlike Julien (defined by his position as an ex-foreign legion paratrooper), Louis is aimless, subsequently becoming destructive – his naivety and cluelessness lead his crimes to quickly escalate, while his station as a child is cemented in his tearful confession for fear of execution.

Only starting to blossom here is Malle’s exploration of impotence and masculinity as a catalyst for violence. A theme explored more intricately, more emotionally, through Lou in Atlantic City (the names serving to further highlight thematic continuations and the input of Malle’s own persona into these two confused characters).

“Both youths become defined by their juvenile attempts to grasp at a pre-defined image of gender roles… They are Malle himself; striving for self-definition”

Providing the opposite end of the gender spectrum is Veronique, whose post-war mind set, unlike Louis, gives her a distinct sense of “what she wants”. This, however, happens to be fulfilling a clichéd gender role. Veronique dreams of marriage to a man like Julien, riding in his fancy car and being bought shiny things – much like the trophy wife of the German fancy man that her and Louis meet on their travels. Both youths become defined by their juvenile attempts to grasp at a pre-defined image of gender roles: the male by seeking masculinity through blind aggression; the female through subservience, willingly following her male counterpart despite her awareness of his actions as both stupid and morally corrupt. They are Malle himself; striving for self-definition, but while the embryonic director takes his own role in his stride, his cinematic counterparts are trapped in a maze of mis-communication and youthful impulses.

It is stylistically, though, that Malle exposes his budding directorial talent. Images of Florence slinking along the Parisian streets at night, through cafes and bars, in a lust-fuelled daze, are the film’s most striking, shot in sultry shallow focus by Henri Dacae (the man responsible for Le Samourai’s cold atmospherics and otherworldly futurism). She sees people on the street simply as vessels to obtain contact with her beloved Julien, who she believes has left her for a younger woman. Classic dramatic irony is provided by the viewer’s knowledge that he is in fact sitting chain smoking in stationary lift. Miles Davis’ haunting trumpet takes on a grander significance here: it is a lament to Florence’s loneliness as a close up on her face reveals her harsh disassociation from the streets she explores.

Use of the Hitcockian (and wholly noir) concept that lurks behind banal domesticity — humanity is aggressive and violent — shows Malle’s awareness of cinematic history, enabling him to draw on its tropes and inject them with visible, but fleeting, elements of personal style; hiding gunshots with the image of a receptionist sharpening pencils, leaving the audience to create their own gruesome imagery.

His first film then is not a bold statement of independent thought or personal exploration, as many of his later works are, but rather that of a first-time fiction director twisting a common form to display their talents. It is Malle doing Bresson and Hitchcock, perhaps as a cinematic curriculum vitae to allow his audiences a first view of the command he brings to the screen. In Lift To The Scaffold, we glimpse a directorial talent with a rudimentary voice soon to become all its own.

George Jepson

Catch Lift to the Scaffold (1958) at Cornerhouse, Manchester this Sunday 29 June 2014, 12 noon, or on Wednesday 2 July, 1.30pm (including a post screening discussion led by Roy Stafford ) — tickets £6/4.50. As part of the cinema’s Matinee Classics Season

Read more of our articles on film noir here

Posted on 25/06/2014 by thedoublenegative