Review: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958)

elevator to the gallows

Remind me never to swipe a car in France!

Dialogue By: Roger Nimier
Directed By: Louis Malle

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud starts off simply enough. A pair of lovers are concocting some sort of plan, and we then see their plan unfold. Then a snag happens and the plan goes awry, without either party truly knowing how bad things have gotten. What follows is a journey that involves a completely different couple, mistaken identities, upset lovers, and stupidity. Louis Malle unfolds his story like a master, trusting his audience to go along for the ride. I was along for the ride the entire time, and it’s a ride that I enjoyed very much.

From the onset Monsieur Malle plays around with tension. He sets up a scene where a rope is left behind, and the tension mounts as it appears that not only has the character forgotten about the rope but so has the film. When the rope is returned to only a few minutes have elapsed, but it feels like an hour worth of hand wringing has come and gone. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is full of little tense moments like the rope sequence. Much of the film hinges on characters being where they shouldn’t, items being left behind, and false assumptions. We, as the audience, are always in the know, and the tension comes from the characters not being in the know.

Another scene that sticks out is when Louis steals his first car. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in cinema when I wanted someone to stop what they were doing as much as I wanted Louis to just forget the car and move on. That scene is drenched in an atmosphere of dread, and by the time Louis has driven off in the car with Véronique their fates are sealed. Be that as it may I kept wishing that every character in the movie would stop what they were doing. I knew their actions couldn’t be undone, yet I still found myself rooting for them to change their fate. This happens despite the fact that the four main characters the film follows are of suspect morals. They shouldn’t be characters to root for, but the filmmaking allows the audience to root for them despite their actions.

It’s interesting seeing where Monsieur Malle’s feature length fictional career began. I’m a fan of Monsieur Malle’s, but I haven’t seen any of his earlier work. His hand is just as sure behind the camera in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud as it will be in his later films. However, there’s a raw energy at work in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud that isn’t always present in his later work. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is less polished, but it engages on the same level as Monsieur Malle’s more seasoned films.

The tension of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud grabbed me and I enjoyed where it took me. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is small in scope, but large in cinematic technique. I’m not an expert on the noir genre, so I’m not completely sure if my classification of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud as a noir passes muster. That being said, I thought Ascenseur pour l’échafaud featured many of the same qualities I look for in a great noir. The tension, the inevitability, and the finale that destroys the world of its characters; these are the noir qualities possessed by Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. Maybe it’s not a noir, maybe I’m completely wrong, but one thing I do know is that Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is one heck of a film.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill Thompson

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