Louis Malle was always the bridesmaid of French cinema. Though ostensibly a part of the Nouvelle Vague, he was a director who was hard to pin down, his wild eclecticism seemingly anathema to the auteurism of the Cahiers gang. His 1958 debut, Lift to the Scaffold (entitled Elevator to the Gallows in the US) is a film about transition, both generational and cinematic. Taking place in the netherworld of French cinema between poetic realism and the New Wave, it comfortably straddled both styles. In this regard, it makes for a fine companion piece to Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960), also rereleased by the BFI.
Lift to the Scaffold deals with the chain of events that is set off by the murder of millionaire arms dealer Simon Carala (Jean Wall) by French army veteran Julien (Maurice Ronet) in cahoots with his mistress Florence (Jeanne Moreau), who is also Carala’s wife. When Julien returns to the scene of the crime to recover a crucial piece of evidence he left behind, he gets stuck in a lift. While he is thus indisposed, his car is stolen by an insolent young man called Louis (Georges Poujouly) and his devoted girlfriend Veronique (Yori Bertin). This is all in a country taking account of its military involvement in Vietnam and Algeria. Malle conflates the trauma of a generation lost with the cynicism of the youth who grew up with them.
The net result is generations betrayed by the omnipotence of authority, brutally represented here by the state, big business and the police. Postcolonial angst in present throughout the picture, but its treatment is malleable. There is anger, nervousness and, during a memorable interrogation sequence, even a sense of Buñuelian absurdity to the proceedings. Malle’s brilliance is in turning political anxiety into wider philosophical concerns while also engaging in his own form of cinematic genre-bending. The political motive that kick-starts the narrative gradually gives way to a creeping fatalism. France is changing, and so is cinema.
Malle uses the trappings of the wrong man thriller to show us how life can often balance itself out. There’s a plethora of actions and reactions, but there’s something almost reassuring about the way Malle’s world resets itself. It’s a peculiar sort of optimism amidst the surrounding cynicism. Miles Davis’ pioneering modal score encapsulates the stylistic essence of the film; it evokes the past, but sounds like the future. Despite the insistence of many, Lift to the Scaffold isn’t the first film of the French New Wave, but the transition into it – a far more interesting thing to behold.