★★★★☆Louis Malle was always the bridesmaid of French cinema. Though ostensibly a part of the Nouvelle Vague, he was a director who was hard to pin down, his wild eclecticism seemingly anathema to the auteurism of the Cahiers gang. His 1958 debut, Lift to the Scaffold (entitled Elevator to the Gallows in the US) is a film about transition, both generational and cinematic. Taking place in the netherworld of French cinema between poetic realism and the New Wave, it comfortably straddled both styles. In this regard, it makes for a fine companion piece to Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques (1960), also rereleased by the BFI.
The net result is generations betrayed by the omnipotence of authority, brutally represented here by the state, big business and the police. Postcolonial angst in present throughout the picture, but its treatment is malleable. There is anger, nervousness and, during a memorable interrogation sequence, even a sense of Buñuelian absurdity to the proceedings. Malle's brilliance is in turning political anxiety into wider philosophical concerns while also engaging in his own form of cinematic genre-bending. The political motive that kick-starts the narrative gradually gives way to a creeping fatalism. France is changing, and so is cinema.
Malle uses the trappings of the wrong man thriller to show us how life can often balance itself out. There's a plethora of actions and reactions, but there's something almost reassuring about the way Malle's world resets itself. It's a peculiar sort of optimism amidst the surrounding cynicism. Miles Davis' pioneering modal score encapsulates the stylistic essence of the film; it evokes the past, but sounds like the future. Despite the insistence of many, Lift to the Scaffold isn't the first film of the French New Wave, but the transition into it - a far more interesting thing to behold.