Film Noir Friday: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud

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Film Noir Friday, written by William Peace

Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (1958)- a French Film Noir directed by Louis Malle. In the US: Elevator to the Gallows- Frantic; in the UK Lift to the Scaffold. It stars Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet.

In older movies it is often difficult to understand the context. To many of us, this isn’t the Jeanne Moreau we dream of; here she is the suburban type wife of a wealthy man and she is made up to fit the part. By this time she had been in 20 movies but she had not yet appeared in Jules et Jim.

Some movies of this era appeal only to cinephiles; this isn’t one of those. Most of the decisions made by the creative team behind the camera are exactly right. The pacing, the lighting, the editing fit the material. That said, the use of Ms Moreau: this is not the woman most men would want to surrender themselves to, but you could see her wanting to have an exciting lover and wanting to have her older husband’s wealth. But there she was, in the café, wondering what was happening, wondering if her lover, her husband’s friend, had went through with their plan. And you could see her hoping that he hadn’t; that her husband was still alive; that they could go away and live their lives- without money.

I won’t spend a lot of time discussing Jeanne Moreau, but this is not who she was to a lot of us who became aware of her when we were all so young.

This film is often discussed in the terms of the score by Miles Davis. This was an intensely creative time for him but his music does not overpower the movie, though some consider the movie groundbreaking for that reason only.

Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) have decided that they have to murder Simon Carala (Jean Wall). Simon is a wealthy man and Julien’s boss. Julien uses his skills as an ex-Foreign Legion officer, a veteran of the Indochina and Algerian wars. Working late, Julien uses a rope to get into Carala’s office and arranges his murder to look like a suicide.

As Julien gets into his sporty convertible he sees the rope hanging from the building. He leaves the engine running and he hurries into the building and into the elevator. Going up in the elevator, the caretaker turns off the power and he is trapped between floors for the weekend.

Julien’s car is then stolen by a young couple; Louis, a small time crook, and flower shop assistant Veronique.

Waiting for Julien in a café, Florence sees the car past by; seeing only Veronique. To her, it appears that Julien has run off with a younger woman. Completely unnerved, Florence spends the night asking about Julien in the bars where he is known.

In Julien’s car, Louis puts on his gloves and begins to assume his identity; checking into a hotel as Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier. At the hotel they meet a German couple on holiday; Horst and Frieda Bencker. Frieda uses Julien’s camera to take pictures of the party.

That night, Louis decides he is going to steal The Bencker’s Mercedes-Benz 300 SL gullwing. Horst catches them and when Louis sees Horst’s cigar tube, he assumes it is a gun, he kills the couple with Julien’s handgun. Louis and Veronique return to her apartment in Paris. Veronique convinces her boyfriend to join her in a suicide pact; which fails.

The dead bodies of the Bencker’s are discovered. With the evidence of Julien’s car, handgun and raincoat, he is the prime suspect; his picture in the morning newspapers.
Julien had spent the night in the elevator, calming trying to get himself out. When the power came on in the morning, he had managed to get himself out. Florence had spent the night trying to find him; even to the point where she had wandered into her husband’s friends and gotten herself arrested as a prostitute.

Then comes the point where Florence wants to find Veronique and clear Julien of the Bencker murders. After finding them woozy, Florence accuses them of killing the Benckers and calls the police. Believing that there is no evidence to connect them with the crime, Louis (the police detective) has the photographs developed and Florence and Julien are arrested.

The question is: Why didn’t Florence and Julien say that Simon didn’t kill himself because of the relationship between is best friend and wife? And why did Florence and Julien give themselves up so easily? The answer may be that it is easier to kill someone than to live with having killed someone. Maybe, after all the lies, Florence and Julien just wanted it to be over with.

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