Elevator to the Gallows

Elevator to the Gallows (French: Ascenseur pour l'échafaud), also known as Frantic in the U.S. and Lift to the Scaffold in the UK, is a 1958 French crime thriller film directed by Louis Malle, starring Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet as illicit lovers whose murder plot starts to unravel after one of them becomes trapped in an elevator. The scenario was adapted from a 1956 novel of the same name by Noël Calef.

Elevator to the Gallows/
Lift to the Scaffold
Ascenseur echafaud.jpg
Original theatrical poster
Directed byLouis Malle
Produced byJean Thuillier
Screenplay byLouis Malle
Roger Nimier
Based onAscenseur pour l'échafaud
by Noël Calef
Music byMiles Davis
CinematographyHenri Decaë
Edited byLéonide Azar
Distributed byLux Compagnie Cinématographique de France
Release date
  • 29 January 1958 (1958-01-29)
Running time
91 minutes

Associated by some critics with film noir,[1] and introducing new narrative, cinematographic and editing techniques, the film is considered an important work in establishing the French New Wave and the New Modern Cinema.[2] The improvised soundtrack by Miles Davis and the relationship the film establishes among music, image and emotion were considered ground-breaking.


Florence Carala and Julien Tavernier are lovers who plan to kill Florence's husband, Simon Carala, a wealthy industrialist who is also Julien's boss. Julien is an ex-Foreign Legion parachutist officer and a veteran of the Indochina and Algeria wars. After working late on a Saturday, with a rope he climbs up one story on the outside of the office building, shoots Carala in his office without being seen, arranges the room to make it look like a suicide, and then makes his way out to the street. As he gets into his Chevrolet convertible outside, he glances up and sees his rope still hanging from the building. Leaving the engine running, he rushes back and jumps into the elevator. As it ascends, the caretaker switches off the power and locks up the building for the weekend. Julien is trapped between floors.

Moments later, Julien's car is stolen by a young couple, small-time crook Louis and flower shop assistant Véronique. Florence, who is waiting for Julien at a café nearby, sees the car go past with Véronique leaning out of the window. She assumes that Julien has run off with her and wanders the Paris streets despondently all night asking for him in the bars and clubs where he is known. While joy-riding, Louis puts on Julien's coat and gloves. Checking into a country motel, the two register under the name "Mr. and Mrs. Julien Tavernier" to avoid problems for Louis, who is wanted for petty crimes. At the motel, they make the acquaintance of Horst Bencker and his wife Frieda, a jovial German couple on holiday with whom they had raced en route to the motel. After Frieda takes pictures of Louis and her husband with Julien's camera, Véronique takes the film to the motel's photo lab for developing.

After the Benckers go to bed, Louis attempts to steal their Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. Bencker catches Louis and threatens him with what appears to be a gun, though it is really a cigar tube. Louis shoots and kills the couple with Julien's handgun. He and Véronique return to Paris and hide in her flat. Convinced that the crime will be traced to them, Véronique persuades Louis to join her in a suicide pact. They take an overdose of pills and pass out.

The Benckers' bodies are discovered, along with Julien's car, handgun, and raincoat. Julien therefore becomes the prime suspect in their murders, and the morning newspapers print his picture. Searching for him, the police arrive at the office building with the caretaker, who unlocks the entrance doors and switches on the power. The elevator is working once more, and Julien is able to escape without being seen, but when he orders coffee and croissants in a café, he is recognized, and the police are called to arrest him. In the office building, the police discover Carala's body but assume he committed suicide. However, they charge Julien with killing the Benckers, refusing to believe his alibi of being stuck in an elevator.

Florence is determined to clear him and sets out to find Véronique. She and Louis, their suicide attempt having failed, are alive but drowsy. Florence accuses them of killing the Benckers and goes to call the police. Louis at first thinks there is no evidence to connect him with the crime, but Véronique remembers the photographs of him with Bencker. Rushing to the photo lab, Louis finds that the police have developed the pictures, and he is arrested.

Florence has followed him, and when she enters the lab, the police show her the photographs taken with Julien's camera. These make clear that she and Julien were secret lovers, who shared a motive for killing her husband. Both will go on trial for Carala's murder.


Jean-Claude Brialy makes an uncredited appearance as a motel guest.


This low-budget black-and-white production was 24-year-old Louis Malle's first feature film. He had previously worked with Jacques Cousteau for several years, and was credited as co-director of the documentary The Silent World.

Malle cast Moreau after seeing her in the Paris stage production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Moreau had been in a number of previous films, but this is often considered her breakthrough role. Malle filmed her without the heavy makeup and extreme lighting that previous directors had demanded. Scenes of Moreau wandering down the Champs Elysees at night were shot on fast film from a baby carriage using only natural light from the street and shop windows.

The film's score is considered by many as groundbreaking.[2] The score by Miles Davis has been described by jazz critic Phil Johnson as "The loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep."[3] It was recorded by Davis and four other musicians in one night, improvising to a screening of the film. The music influenced the later development of Davis's music and jazz in general, as well as soundtracks in later movies.

Critical responseEdit

For Time, the journalist Barry Farrell wrote:

Moreau had 20 forgettable films behind her...Malle put Moreau under an honest light and wisely let his camera linger. The film was nothing special, but it did accomplish one thing: it proposed a new ideal of cinematic realism, a new way to look at a woman. All the drama in the story was in Moreau's face – the face that had been hidden behind cosmetics and flattering lights in all her earlier films. When Malle [made] The Lovers the following year, it was obvious who his woman would be. For one thing, he had discovered her, and for another, they were in love.[4]

The film holds a 93% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 56 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.08/10.[5] The film also holds a rating of 94/100 on Metacritic, indicating "universal acclaim."[6] In a 2005 review for the film's theatrical re-release, Roger Ebert observed that Moreau's face when Florence is pondering Julien's whereabouts "is often illuminated only by the lights of the cafes and shops that she passes; at a time when actresses were lit and photographed with care, these scenes had a shock value, and influenced many films to come." He further argued that Louis and Veronique were a precursor to the young couple in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960).[7] In a 2016 article, New Yorker film critic Richard Brody claims that the film is more important for its place in French film history than for its own artistic merits, with the exception of Miles Davis's score, which he states "is worth hearing entirely on its own. It’s better than the film itself, by far, and there are better ways to hear it than in the movie—namely, by listening to a CD that features the entire studio sessions from which the score was edited." Brody goes on to discuss the music in some detail.[8]


Calef's novel has been filmed twice since Malle's version: once by Japanese filmmaker Akira Ogata titled Shikeidai No Erebêtâ in 2010 as well as a Russian adaptation by Stanislav Govorukhin titled Weekend in 2013.


  1. ^ Rasmussen, Linda. "Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud - synopsis". AllMovie. Retrieved 5 October 2013.
  2. ^ a b Daniele, Romina (2011). Ascenseur pour l'échafaud, Il luogo della musica nell'audiovisione. Milan, Italy: RDM. ISBN 9788890490590. A detailed analysis on the movie and on this relationship from a critical, linguistic and aesthetical point of view, can be found on this book.
  3. ^ Johnson, Phil (14 March 2004), "Discs: Jazz—Miles Davis/Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Fontana)", Independent on Sunday
  4. ^ Farrell, Barry, "Actresses: Making the Most of Love" (subscription access only), Time cover story pp. 4-5, 5 March 1965. Retrieved 21 March 2015.
  5. ^ "Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (Lift to the Scaffold) (Frantic)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  6. ^ "Frantic [re-release]". Metacritic.
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (15 September 2005). "Elevator to the Gallows Movie Review (2005)". Retrieved 26 July 2016.
  8. ^ Brody, Richard (3 August 2016). "Lous Malle's 'Elevator to the Gallows' and Its Historic Miles Davis Soundtrack". The New Yorker. Retrieved 17 November 2020.

External linksEdit