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ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) (director/writer: Louis Malle; screenwriters: from the novel by Noël Calef/Roger Nimier; cinematographer: Henri Decaë; editor: Léonide Azar; music: Miles Davis; cast: Jeanne Moreau (Florence Carala), Maurice Ronet (Julien Tavernier), Georges Poujouly (Louis), Yori Bertin (Veronique), Jean Wall (Simon Carala), Micheline Bona (Genevieve), Gérard Darrieu (Maurice), Iván Petrovich (Horst Bencker), Elga Andersen (Madame Bencker), Charles Denner (Inspector Cherier’s assistant); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jean Thuillier; Criterion; 1958-France-in French with English subtitles)
“Director-writer Louis Malle’s first feature at 26 is a stylish French New Wave noir-ish thriller that never satisfies as much as it should.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director-writer Louis Malle’s first feature at 26 is a stylish French New Wave noir-ish thriller that never satisfies as much as it should, but also never disappoints as much as it should. It’s adapted by Malle and Roger Nimier from a pulp fiction novel by Noël Calef and tells of disgruntled ex-paratrooper officer, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), who served in Indochina and Algeria. He’s trying to retrieve some evidence he mindlessly left at the crime scene after his well-planned killing of the tycoon scoundrel arms dealer Simon Carala (Jean Wall)–which he made to look like a suicide–but he ends up stuck all night in his office building’s elevator that malfunctions. Simon was his boss and the husband of Florence (Jeanne Moreau), the woman he’s having an affair with and his accomplice. The crime motive was for a chance for them to be together with plenty of dough. Florence, feeling both betrayed and itching to see her lover, spends the night walking the boulevards searching in bars and cafes for Julien after he fails to show at their coffeehouse rendezvous. The plot twist is that juvenile delinquent Louis (Georges Poujouly) steals Julien’s car to go on a joyride and takes along his dumb flower-girl girlfriend Veronique (Yori Bertin). On the highway Louis races Julien’s convertible with a German tourist couple in a new Mercedes, and they end up in the same motel where the pompous rich German businessman treats the punky upstart couple to a night of booze, loose talk and photos. The drunken Louis uses Julien’s gun, found in the glove compartment, to kill the couple after they try to stop them from stealing their car. The morning headlines tell of the manhunt for Julien for the tourist murders, as his raincoat and murder weapon are found in the stolen Mercedes. Malle parallels the well-planned execution with the senseless murder, pointing out how the best laid plans often go awry just as easily as the brainless ones.

The thin story is covered up by Henri Decaë’s stunning camera work for the black-and-white film capturing the scary nighttime shadows of Paris, the brilliant improvised jazz score by Miles Davis sets the moody tone for the film and Moreau’s soulful performance as the doomed lover has a lyrical quality. She’s filmed in close-up and without makeup under the street lights which makes it easier to see her pained concern for her lover. The film brought even greater international recognition to Moreau, already a well-known actress in France. Malle’s career blossomed and he went on to make such varied outstanding films as “Murmur of the Heart,” “Atlantic City” and “Au Revoir Les Enfants.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”