“Paris at night in black-and-white with Miles on the soundtrack? It’s a perfect fit.”
Ever see the flick about the young Parisian car thief who steals an American convertible, finds a gun in the glove compartment, kills a guy, and goes down for it? How about the one about a young couple who are car thieves, get involved in murder, and fantasize about dying together with their pictures all over the newspapers?
Am I talking À bout de soufflé, aka Breathless?1 Nuh-uh. Bonnie and Clyde? Again, negative. Way, way back in 1957 a 25-year-old kid named Louis Malle was ahead of the pack with an atmospheric thriller called Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), starring Jeanne Moreau and featuring a soundtrack fashioned by M. Cool, Miles Davis.
Ascenseur has been hailed as the first vague of the nouvelle vague to hit the beach, with the possible exception of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1955). I’m all thumbs when it comes to splitting hairs, so I’ll just say that Ascenseur is certainly nouvelle-ish, and let it go at that. The main plot, ostensibly, at least, consists of an ingenious, “locked-room” murder mystery straight out of the thirties, except that we know who did it, trés suave Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), plotting with the elegant, moody Florence Carala (Jeanne) to murder her hubbie Simon (Jean Wall). The scheme works perfectly, except that it doesn’t, and poor Julien gets trapped in an elevator overnight, while poor Florence, waiting for his call, which never comes,2 desperately wanders the streets of Paris, sure that he’s abandoned her.
He hasn’t, of course, but Florence thinks she’s seen him speeding past her in his sleek, imported convertible3 with another woman beside him. What happened is that, rather unbelievably, Julien left the car, with the motor running, to take care of that pesky detail that resulted in his incarceration a la ascenseur. In the meantime, moody bad boy Louis (Georges Poujouly), goaded by his girlfriend Veronique (Yori Bertin), has boosted the machine, with Veronique coming along for the ride.
The film’s plot plays a mean trick on its ostensible stars Moreau and Ronet, leaving them with nothing to do while Louis and Veronique go for a joyride that will echo down the corridors of cinema for decades to come. With his blouson noir, surly, self-pitying manner, and Elvisian pompadour, Poujouly is amusingly, even tediously authentic. Unlike his successors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Warren Beatty, he doesn’t look like a hip movie star; he looks like a young punk. Once they’re off, Veronique finds a handgun in the glove compartment (Julien is an ex-paratrooper, so he’s entitled), which Louis quickly pockets. He’s the man, after all.
As the two race along a well-lit divided highway (one of the wonders of postwar France, I guess), they pass and then are passed by the fanciest car of the fifties, a “gull-wing” Mercedes 300SL (right). Louis, his incoherent manhood challenged, floors the Chevy. Though he is, of course, hopelessly outclassed, Louis follows the Merc when it exits the intra-état and, in a burst of aggressiveness, manages to scrape the rear bumper. The car’s owner, consummate man of the world Horst Bencker (Iván Petrovich), accompanied by trophy femme Frieda (Elga Andersen), is (again, rather unbelievably) amused rather than appalled by Louis’ presumption, and invites the two kids to join him and Frieda for some champagne at what appears to be a French motel, which does sound like a contradiction in terms. French and tacky, at the same time?
Horst, speaking impeccable French and seemingly not at all embarrassed by the bloody and horrifying course of Franco-German relations over the past forty years, listens genially while Louis tells one whopper after another, borrowing Julien’s war record and claiming to have fought in both Vietnam and Algeria. After the two couples retire, Louis leads Veronique to the garage, where he attempts to steal the Mercedes, but he can’t figure out how to operate the damn thing. When Horst and Frieda show up, he (again, rather unbelievably) kills them both.
With the party pretty much over, Louis and Veronique head back to Paris, where they hole up in her flat. Veronique, in a sort of morbid ecstasy, decides that death is preferable to separation. They’ll commit suicide together, and be at peace. “Our pictures will be all over the papers,” she says.
At this point Ascenseur gets less nouvelle and settles back into the sort of kismet/karma ironic twists typical of the traditional thriller. A series of chain-smoking police detectives, all of them looking and acting exactly like Yves Montand, stumble and struggle over the evidence. They’ve got a couple of corpses, after all, and someone’s got to pay. Will Julien go to the gallows for murders he didn’t commit, instead of the one he did? Will Florence go “free,” not realizing that it was her error that sentenced the man she loves to death?
I confess that at this point I wasn’t caring very much. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is a fantastic period piece, but I wasn’t knocked out by either the script or the performances, or anything else, except the soundtrack. Miles Davis always had more attitude than talent, in my opinion, but I gotta admit, Paris at night in black-and-white with Miles on the soundtrack? It’s a perfect fit.
The soundtrack to Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is available in both CD and MP3 formats. Miles is joined by Barney Wilen on tenor sax, Rene Utreger on piano, and Pierre Michelet on bass, with legendary expatriate Kenny Clarke manning the “batterie.”
Ascenseur is available on a classy, two-disc set from Criterion. It is my wont — and a self-satisfied and self-indulgent wont it is, too — to skip all the “extras” on DVDs these days. Too much backscratching, too many “insights.” Fortunately, Pam Grady, over at Reel.com, is, in fact, keepin’ it real, and gives us the lowdown on the “extras” disc, which along with “vintage” interviews with both Moreau and Malle, features an early short by Malle based on Charlie Parker’s recording of “Crazyology” (or “Crazeologie,” as it’s spelled à la français), clips from the actual recording session for the Ascenseur soundtrack, and more!
- Breathless? Breathless? The correct translation, of course, is “Dude, where’s my soufflé?” But, thanks to those ham-handed Neanderthals in Hollywood, we’ll never be able to recapture that elusive Gallic essence. Damn! [↩]
- They didn’t have cellphones back then. Amazing! [↩]
- His sleek, imported ’54 Chevy! I’m pretty sure that’s what it is. Either that or a Pontiac. It’s a “pre-tailfin” car — they came in in ’55 — and the idea that a ’54 Chevy could be considered glamorous strikes me as pretty funny. It does have an automatic folding roof, which is pretty cool. I must admit that I never would have imagined that a ’54 Chevy would come with such a feature. [↩]