Lift To The Scaffold

***1/2

Reviewed by: Chris

Jeanne Moreau in Lift To The Scaffold
"In this very impressive debut from Louis Malle, the small budget proves no impediment to delivering a taut thriller."

An extreme close-up shot of Jeanne Moreau gives an intimacy to her expressions of passionate love. No make-up. She could be in the throes. But pan back and we see she is on the phone, encouraging her lover towards murder most foul. Then back again. We see her side-on in a public phone box. Her crime is suddenly set in the real world.

Florence Carala (Moreau) is in the process of dumping her wealthy aging husband for a newer model. This being a murder mystery, dumping will not involve drawn out court cases. Instead, handsome ex-paratrooper Julien Tavernier, who conveniently works on the floor below the soon-to-be-deceased, will expedite matters. Locking his own door so people outside provide alibis, he enters the boss's office by means of an outside rope. It would be a perfect murder except he forgets the rope - until getting into his car to meet Florence. We've received the obvious clue on a plate, but circumstances in the rest of the movie will conspire towards an altogether different solution. For much of this time, Julien is stuck in a lift as Florence walks the streets.

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In this very impressive debut from Louis Malle, the small budget proves no impediment to delivering a taut thriller. With lots of low-level lighting and focusing on the key characters, Malle builds a gripping film with a minimum of props, extras or expensive kit. Moody and atmospheric, the big additional component is Miles Davis' haunting soundtrack. If you're a fan, it's worth watching the film for this stunning improvisation alone. Davis nails the mood as Moreau wanders forlornly from bar to bar through rain-drenched streets. It sets a great noir tone and allows us to drink in the scenery without too much dialogue.

Not that the dialogue is weak. Julien, in the phone conversation, says "If I couldn't hear your voice, I'd be lost in a land of silence." Which is exactly where he ends up a few hours later. Stuck in a lift. The theme of separation is echoed in a subplot involving two tearaways who 'borrow' his car. After their plans also go fatefully astray, they contemplate the loneliness of being in separate jails once caught.

Sympathy for our femme fatale and bad guy is helped along by a bit of political agit-prop. "How many billions did the Indochina War bring you?" Julien asks, obliquely criticising French arms dealing. Florence is always 'respectable'. The police apologise most profusely after mistakenly arresting her on suspicion of being a prostitute. They are portrayed almost as a 'nobility' class of murderers. Not like the low-lifes who nick Julien's posh babe-wagon and then irresponsibly use the gun in his raincoat pocket.

Lift To The Scaffold is a clever thriller made in back-to-basics conditions. In that lies its appeal and the reason why it is sometimes heralded as a forerunner of the French 'New Wave'. It made Jeanne Moreau an international star. Seen some 50 years later it still has clout, although I was not fully convinced that a skilled operator like Julien would have been distracted into forgetting his rope...

Reviewed on: 26 May 2008
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Moreau's first lead role about an unfaithful wife who finds nothing but trouble after a fling with her lover.
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Director: Louis Malle

Writer: Noël Calef, Louis Malle, Roger Nimier

Starring: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin, Jean Wall, Elga Andersen, Sylviane Aisenstein, Micheline Bona, Gisèle Grandpré, Jacqueline Staup, Marcel Cuvelier

Year: 1958

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: France

Festivals:

EIFF 2008

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