A reissue of the classic Ascenseur pour l’echaufaud (Lift to the Scaffold)

A reissue of the classic Ascenseur pour l’echaufaud (Lift to the Scaffold)

1960 re-issue at the BFI Southbank and selected art house cinemas nationwide from 7 January 2014.

In the heady post-war years between the late 1950s and the early 1960s there was no shortage of legendary film debuts from the young, American-influenced French filmmakers of the so-called La Nouvelle Vague (the New Wave).  And as far as film debuts go, few are more entertaining than Louis Malle’s 1958 film noir thriller, Ascenseur pour l’echaufaud (Lift to the Scaffold), based on the novel by Noel Calef.

Jeanne Moreau (who went to make films for Malle, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Brook, Claude Chabrol during the short-lived New Wave), plays a femme fatale, but this one is not just in it for the money. Florence Carala is madly in love with Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) and the feeling is mutual. He is about to murder his boss – and Florence’s husband. If it was never going to be the perfect crime, the audiences watches their chances of a happy life together gradually diminish in a series of events that would be criminal to reveal to those who haven’t seen the film.  It is, however, fair to disclose that when a reckless pair of younger lovers Louis (Georges Poujouly) and Veronique (Yori Bertin) take Julien’s flashy car for a joy-ride, the lives of the two couples become fatefully intertwined.

While first time viewers will be too caught up in the tense narrative to notice many of the film’s details, no one can miss Moreau’s famous saunter through the rainy Parisian streets to the plaintive sounds of Miles Davis’ trumpet and a now-famous jazz score, that he wrote for the film.  Those were the days when Malle’s chance encounter with Davis in a Parisian jazz club could result in an improvised score recorded in one long night. Davis only saw the film twice, but as he had a brief relationship with Moreau, it clearly had an impact.

What you might also notice is modern Paris emerging out of the 1940 Resistance films and the fantasies, historic romances and musicals of René Clair.  Julien’s office building is a wonderful, brand new 1950s creation, the kind that has all but disappeared from today’s Paris and London cityscapes. The teenage lovers, who are a warped mirror image of Florence and Julien, represent the new generation who emerged from the war as a rebellious class and a movement rather than a group of young adults.

Then there are the subtle political references to the controversial war in Indochina. Ironically, Julien is a war hero who now sells arms for the unscrupulous Simon Carala (Jean Wall) while the young hoodlum, Louis, pretends to be a war veteran.

Savour the pleasure of the old-fashioned French detective, played by Lino Ventura, and an annoying journalist (Lucien Desagneaux), now the staple of many a television police procedural. Rather unexpectedly, too, you might glimpse what appears to be a gay couple in the motel: the handsome chess player is Jean-Claude Brialy who starred in Claude Chabrol’s impressive debut film, Le Beau Serge, released in this same rich year of 1958.

While Malle collaborated on the clever adaptation with the young, anti-existentialist novelist Roger Nimier (Le Hussard Bleu), Nimier is credited with the wonderful dialogue, including the suicide scene at the end of the film.  Sadly, Nimier himself committed suicide ten years later at the age of 43.  François Truffaut grabbed the film’s Cinematographer, Henri Decaë, to shoot his own 1959 debut, The 400 Blows that won the Palme D’Or that year.

Malle fell in love with Jeanne Moreau and cast her in his next film, the aptly entitled Les Amants (The Lovers).  Two years after Lift to the Scaffold, in 1960, Moreau repeated her lonely walk in Peter Brook’s atmospheric love story Moderato Cantabile (Seven Days…Seven Nights), this time in a provincial town, pining for a character played by Jean Paul Belmondo to a classical piano score.  Two months earlier, Belmondo had appeared in Godard’s celebrated debut, Breathless. Moreau’s performance in Moderato Cantabile, if not her walk, was rewarded with a Best Actress award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.