There is something sacred and magical about a director's first feature film. They're usually rife with exuberant creativity, innovative narrative structures, and imaginative characters. They're often full of a sort of beautiful naivety, a kind of idealistic optimism coupled with a frantic desperation to prove one's self at the prospect of the beginning of a hopefully long and fruitful career. The films that come to mind are ones like Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, Scorsese's Mean Streets, Godard's Breathless, Truffaut's The 400 Blows, Welles' Citizen Kane, and countless others. But also deserving of inclusion in this list is Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour l'echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows).
Louis Malle, 1932-1995.
Malle began his career as a cameraman and co-director of Jacques Cousteau's films, and later as an assistant to French legend Robert Bresson. Malle made L'Ascenseur pour l'echafaud when he was only 24 years old, and it began a long and varied career spanning continents and genres.
Ascenseur pour l'echafaud tells, in essence, three stories related to one main character, a young man, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). Julien plots to murder his boss and then run off with his wife. The murder goes smoothly, but as he is about to make his getaway, he realizes he left a damning piece of evidence back up in the office. He returns to gather it, but as he descends in the elevator for the second time, the watchman shuts the power off for the weekend, stranding Julien in the elevator, leaving him in the ripe position to be caught red-handed for his crime.
This can't bode well.
The second narrative follows two naive teenage lovers who steal Julien's car and take it for a joy-ride, a quickly get well in over their own heads with their own set of crimes. The third story we follow is that of Julien's lover, the wife of the man he has just killed, played by the gorgeous Jeanne Moreau, who sees Julien's car speed off with another woman in the passenger seat, not understanding that it was the teenagers. Distraught and confused, she wanders the night streets of Paris, looking for both him and a reason why he may have run off with someone else.
The beautiful and one-of-a-kind Jean Moreau.
Malle's direction is crisp, and the cinematography is beautiful, creating an interesting and vibrant narrative. The film is so full of life, no doubt partially due to Miles Davis' energetic and largely improvised soundtrack. At times jazzy and upbeat, while other times contemplative and melancholic, it ties the three narratives together nicely. The acting is fun, though can be a little one-dimensional at times. Both the beginning and ending scenes are also classic french new wave noir. Watch out for appearances from some great French faces, including the stellar Lino Ventura (I will write extensively about him in the coming days for his great performances in several Jean-Pierre Melville films), Jean-Claude Brialy (from my favorite Godard: Une Femme est une femme), Jeanne Moreau herself, who became cinema royalty, and one German star: the legendary Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing.
The Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing: One of the finest looking cars ever. It really embodies an era of design. Stunning!