I had the distinct pleasure last night of watching a brilliant modern film noir French classic that I streamed via the praise worthy Netflix entitled “Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud” (English translation – “Elevator to the Gallows”).
This was the feature-film debut of famed director Louis Malle (amazingly only 24 at the time) staring the stunning Jeanne Moreau (this is film that launched her into stardom) and Maurice Ronet.
Jeanne Moreau in the opening scene from “Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud”
The film is majestically scored by Miles Davis and it has been described by jazz critic Phil Johnson as "the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep."
Netflix describes the film as such, “When the bewitching Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover, Julien (Maurice Ronet), plot to kill Florence's unsuspecting husband (Jean Wall), they don't count on a technical glitch -- a broken elevator -- getting in the way of the perfect murder. Louis Malle directs this haunting French thriller in his feature film debut, an impressive achievement heightened by the film's memorable improvisational score composed by jazz legend Miles Davis.”
While the description is valid, it is only a whispered hint of the many dramatic twists and turns in the storyline of this prodigious thriller.
Visually, the film is simply stunning as cinematographer Henri Decae makes extensive use of Paris at night, giving the film the feel of claustrophobia and desperation reminiscent of the classic noir films.
The following scene offers a perfect example of the film’s power visual impact. Here, Florence (unaware that her lover Julien is trapped in an elevator and suspecting that he may have abandoned both their murderous plot and her) has been desperately walking the streets of Paris for hours searching his favorite night spots in the hopes of finding him.
The astonishing actress Jeanne Moreau plays the role perfectly. She is lost in a somber and dark world of paranoia and anguish stumbling through the rain slickened streets like a zombie searching for the clarity that can only be found in the embracing arms of her lover.
Pay attention to the way she walks directly into the path of an oncoming car in the scene (and again into the traffic at the end) – astounding! No special effects here – just a very brave actress dedicated to her art.
Despite the fact that this film is close to 55 years old, the visuals still seem fresh and contemporary and the artistic echos of the imagery from this classic can still be found today in film, fashion, music video and more.
While I know that this film is available via Netflix (both as a DVD and streaming) you may also be able to find it in your public library or the foreign section of your local video store (if you still have any in your area, I no longer do). Or, consult with the local Art Cinema house, museum, or university (again, some of you may not have access to such) and inquire about adding this film to the line-up.