Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud – France 1958)

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows while visually interesting is an ugly tale. Great title though.

The scenario is deftly established in the first few scenes. Two middle-class lovers, Florence and Julien, on the verge of middle-age, whisper sweet nothings over the phone in the late afternoon and when she hangs up, he commences to put into action their pact to murder her older husband, Simon Carala, who is also Julien’s boss. It is established before the crime that the boss is a jerk in a scene with a telephonist who places a call through to Carala, and where an electric pencil-sharpener serves to intimate the banality of office work.

Julien is ex-army and has no difficulty scaling a rope secured by a grappling hook outside the office building in broad daylight (!) to Carala’s office on the floor above.  Just before Julien shoots Carala dead with Carala’s own gun making it look like suicide, we learn that Carala is an arms dealer when Julien lectures him on the infamy of his trade!  There disturbingly is no irony here or in the rest of the film after we learn that Julien is well-rewarded for his work, and that Florence enjoys the life-style of a Parisian bourgeois. In Hitchcock fashion, Julien slips up when he leaves the rope hanging from the balcony-rail outside the dead guy’s office. This feau pax is the trigger for what ensues: down-hill all the way.  We get to see two more senseless murders, the attempted double-suicide of teenage lovers, and the use of a reverse McGuffin – a miniature ‘spy’ camera. All is elegantly woven with a tres-cool Jazz score composed and performed by Miles Davis.

Between the opening crime and the denouement we endure interminable scenes of a rather frumpish Florence (played a la minimalist by Jeanne Moreau) walking the streets of Paris from one dive to another looking for her lost lover.  The amour fou is established on her side only. For most of the ‘action’ Julien is way-laid in a conveyance.  A second story of two juveniles on a joy-ride in a stolen-car which spirals into hell is skillfully merged with the main arc.

Ultimately though the whole affair is no more than chic nihilism packaged as a noir take on romantic obsession and teenage angst.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

15 Comments

  1. Hi! Tony D’Ambra,

    What a very nice review of the 1958 film Louis Malle Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud France 1958)…Ahh!…This will the fourth review that I have read online of director i>Louis Malle’s 1958 film “Elevator to the Gallows” (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud).

    The first time, that I read a review of this film is when a fellow member (On a message board called “Blackboard” where I use to post messages.) did a most excellant review of this film.(Which I plan to “repost” on my blog sometime next week…)

    The second time, was 3 weeks ago, when a fellow eblogger (who(m) blog that I also link on my blogroll, wrote a “very short” review of this film.(Btw, I wonder if you can guess the name of his blog?…If you said, “Film Noir” then you will be correct!)
    and finally, the article that was featured in the “Bright Lights Shine on Film Noir” article.

    I think all four are “most excellant”…(The “same,” but very “different”)… reviews of director Louis Malle’s 1958 Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud)

    Merci Beaucoup! Tony D’Ambra,
    dcd ;)

  2. Btw, What a “unique” poster for the 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud).
    I have seen two or three different (versions) posters for the film Elevator to the Gallows, but “never” this poster.
    Thank-you! for sharing this poster with your readers Tony D’Ambra.
    ps
    (Oops! there are a couple of “typos” in my previous message. I am so sorry!)

    Merci Beaucoup! Tony D’Ambra,

    dcd ;)

  3. I really liked this film when I saw it, thought it clever, kept my interest, looked great, sounded great (of course)…every review I’ve read since seems to dismiss it though. Go figure.

    As for Moreau, I’d hardly call her bordering on middle age! (I believe she was 28 at the time.) Must have been those sad eyes.

  4. “Ultimately though the whole affair is no more than chic nihilism packaged as a noir take on romantic obsession and teenage angst.”

    Wow.

    Tony, you are hereby relieved of your duties as Chairman of the “Louie Malle Cinematic Appreciation Society.” LOL. But you are still the ever-viligent proponent of umitigatedfilm noir, for which you (admittedly)raise some very valid points that I happen to agree with you on, even if I like the film a bit more.
    The film is strange for sure, and has it share of narrative contrivances. It is boosted by the fantastic cinematography of Hneri Decae, as well as Miles Davis’s core, which admittedly is not used as succintly as it should have been. It was Malle’s first feature film, and the efforts that followed were far better: THE LOVERS and LE FEU FOLLET. In Malle’s oeuvre, this is strictly an ‘experimental’ effort, and is largely unever.

    Voila, Tony D’Ambra!

  5. Ouch.

    For me, all of the superfluous stuff–of which there is a great quantity, unfortunately–gradually withers away after a while in the mind, and what remains is what the film should always have been about. I appreciate the film a great deal, and it’s an absorbing piece of cinema in a way few directorial debuts are. Yet I agree that it feels overstretched by itself, and becomes better once the somewhat useless parts are largely forgotten.

    Splendid review, in any event, Tony.

  6. Hi Dcd, thanks for your comments and the link. Yes, the poster is great – it is Polish. The poster used on the site you linked to is rather good too.

    Thanks MM for visiting. Moreau looks fat in a dark 50’s twin-set and her face in close-up reveals that the flush of youth has faded. The scenes at night as she wanders the streets were shot without make-up, and it is only the next day wearing make-up and her hair tied-back does she look less ravaged by age. Her infatuation has the mark of the desparate older woman.

    Sam, thanks for pointing out that this was Malle’s first feature – it is a very assured effort. I have great respect for Malle as a film-maker, and Lacombe Lucien is one of my favorite movies, but Gallows despite its acknowledged strengths leaves me cold. Thirty years ago I may have been wowed, as I generally was by the French new wave. When I revisit these films in late middle-age, I find little meaning behind the chic facade and ennui that I cultivated as a 20-something. You rightly acknowledge the contribution of cinematographer Henri Decaë. But the characters apart from the cops, who are solidly portrayed, are not involving and hardly worthy of our sympathies. Julien and Florence are utterly selfish and without remorse, and the teenagers are but ciphers for some nebulous critique of I don’t know what.

    Thanks Alexander for your views and feedback. It is interesting to note your observation on memory and what you recall from a film. Perhaps age is starting to take its toll, but after 20-30 years I recall only certain films with clarity – and they are the ones that involved me emotionally. I am pretty sure in my dotage when all old men can do is just sit and think, recent movies like Monsieur Ibrahim will remain vivid while a film like Before the Devil Knows Your Dead will be largely forgotten.

  7. PS: I just returned to re-reading Ernest Lindgren’s The Art of the Film, and this quote I feel is relevant here when considering my response to this film:

    “It should perhaps be made clear… that although the source of unity in a fiction film lies in its central action, and not in the theme underlying it, this is not to say that the theme can be dismissed as unimportant. Not all films have an explicit moral purpose, but they have an implicit one. Because the author of a story is concerned with human behaviour he inevitably expresses certain social attitudes. Sometimes he does so deliberately and consciously as his main object: sometimes he does so only by implication or even by omission; but he cannot escape from the necessity and neither can his audience. A complete appraisal of any film must take account at some point of its underlying purpose, and must attempt to assess its value. When all that can be said of its structure and craftsmanship has been said, we still have to relate it to the life which it mirrors, and of which it is a part.” (pp. 51-52)

  8. It is now almost midnight here in northern New Jersey, and I just got back from seeing the French film, A CHRISTMAS TALE by Arnaud Despletchen in Manhattan. I just read these two late posts from Tony, and they are fabulous. Tomorrow I will have a full response as well as a response to the latest new post.

  9. I must agree with your most incisive point about emotion playing the most puissant role in making one vividly remember a certain film.

    And that is probably where Elevator to the Gallows most fundamentally fails. Despite Malle’s almost precocious assuredness and craftsmanship, an emotional component seems to be absent. The film functions more emphatically as a construct of time-testing paradigms and plot points.

    However, I will say that the finale packs a punch, partly because of the pungent way in which Malle concludes the final scene.

  10. The two points of Tony’s #8 submission that I really agree with 100% (although I can’t say I disagree with anything here)are 1.) the assertion that “emotions” are central to the films that are remembered most fondly. At the end of the day, these are truly the works that spur on the intellect to recall, thus again making the case that the intellect is strongly influenced by a strong emotional reaction.

    2.) Tony hits the bullseye with this statement:
    “I find little meaning behind the chic facade and ennui that I cultivated as a 20-something.”

    This reminds me of our musical taste when we were in our 20’s as opposed to now. rock, which now seems juvenile has yielded to opera and classical. Truth is, there are some things that never age, but others are trapped in a specific time frame.

    Lindgren’s piece was fascinating but a tough one to process.

  11. Alexander, and sorry Sam, I am aging disgracefully. I rarely listen to classical music and I am not into Opera. I am stuck in the rock music of the 50s and 60s, and would rather watch a good 40s movie any time :)

  12. Susan

    Really age? I am 61 years old. Film junkie (studied film at Barry U ten years ago), video game junkie, love opera, punk and hard-core. Will always appreciate jazz and blues but having been a professional blues/jazz singer-flutist and blues harpist-I am dreadfully burnt out on these 2 genres. And age has very little to do with it! But I do agree with ties to time frame. I also know that I appreciate so much more about films in general after learning to really perceive metaphors. Sometimes I may not even be exactly sure if some metaphors are purposefully placed because the director wanted them there or unconsciously put them there or they might be of my own doing! Just like interpreting an abstract painting. And yes, I truly believe the more you know about the artist the more you can comprehend the creation. I will admit my taste in horror films has mellowed, I thought it might be my age-but then I remembered how much I hated horror movies based on reality when I was in my teens. So am I regressing, or mellowing or do I have stronger morals now? Don’t know, don’t really care! I will say one thing it,s just so nice to hear other people speak about their interests in Film Noir, and movies with subtitles. I cannot tell you how often I hear ignorant people,( sorry to say especially here in Florida) ” I just can’t or won’t watch a movie with subtitles! Ugh! And I swear to you I heard some fairly well known 40year plus director promoting a new movie and completely bastardizing the genre-the actual wording “Film Noir” He said FILM NO R -I could be ignorant and not aware of some new genre or a joke that I am missing. Please help me out on this, anyone? I love almost all types of movies and I do respect all your critiques-And I have revisited some classics-some did not hold up and some were still awesome-though I believe mainly the causes to be time referenced and not so much my age. Sincerely Susa P.S. Anyone like Truffaut? I have the collection of “The Adventures of Antoine Doinel”.

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