Ex-paratrooper Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) and his lover Florence (Jeanne Moreau) devise a plan to murder her husband Carala (Jean Wall), a rich industrialist who also happens to be Julien’s boss. Having done the deed, which he makes look like a suicide, the former soldier realises he has left behind a vital piece of evidence, and, on his way back to retrieve it, gets trapped in the office lift. After Julien fails to turn up at their agreed rendezvous, an increasingly distraught Florence wanders the nighttime streets of Paris, unaware of what has befallen him. Meanwhile, two teenagers, Louis (Georges Poujouly), and his girlfriend Veronique (Yori Bertin), steal Julien’s car and take off on a crime spree, leaving evidence behind that implicates Julien.
"I was split between my tremendous admiration for Robert Bresson and the temptation to make a Hitchcock-like film," was how director Louis Malle described his debut feature, made when he was just 24. In fact the film stands at a stylistic crossroads between the French cinema of the classic period and the New Wave films that were about to usher in a new mode of expression a year later. For this reason, Elevator to the Scaffold is often cited as the first Nouvelle Vague film, although Malle himself never considered himself part of any movement and conscientiously followed his own path throughout his career.
Taking a pulp novel by Noel Calef as his source material, Malle crafted a complex screenplay with writer Roger Nimier featuring intersecting parallel storylines and ironic plot twists. To help him bring it to life he brought together a formidable assembly of talents including Jeanne Moreau, the top stage actress of her generation in France, ace cinematographer Henri Decae, and legendary jazz musician Miles Davis. Decae’s shots of Moreau as Florence searching for Julien on the streets of Paris are now the most celebrated scenes in the film but at the time they were controversial.
"She was lit only by the windows of the Champs-Elysees, that had never been done," the director recalled later. "That first week there was a rebellion of the technicians at the lab after they had seen the dailies. They went to the producer and said, 'You must not let Malle and Decaë destroy Jeanne Moreau.' They were horrified." However, rather than destroy Moreau, "Elevator" launched her as a new star. Malle brought out her intense sensuality, as well as the naturalism and sensitivity which would make her a favourite of the New Wave directors.
Tying it all together is Miles Davis’s plaintive score that has become iconic in its own right. Brooding and beautiful, his improvised trumpet was described as “the loneliest sound you will ever hear,” by jazz critic Phil Johnson. It is the perfect counterpoint to the visual images.