Jean Gabin stars in this classic polar. It’s unusual because there are no police involved in what is purely a gangland tale. Gabin plays Max, a well-respected but ageing gangster who dresses elegantly and is well organised. He has performed what he hopes is his last job and has the haul stashed away. But someone has talked and the new guy on the block, played by Lino Ventura in his first role at the advanced age of 34 (he was a professional wrestler at the time) is alert to the possibilities. Jacque Becker’s film is still a cracking crime film today but it looks odd in the era of #MeToo since it features a club that is a front for a crime boss and which features dancers and a miniature version of the Folies Bergère with the women wearing ‘pasties’ but otherwise bare-breasted. The dancers include Jeanne Moreau (not bare-breasted!) in a relatively early role. She was a well-known stage actor at the time but her film roles were not that substantial. Her film breakthrough would come with Lift to the Scaffold (1958) when, ironically, Lino Ventura would have a secondary role.
As well as the young female dancers, the gangsters are also accompanied/assisted at various points by older women, in particular by Madame Bouche (Denise Clair), whose restaurant is the regular haunt of Max and his friends. The film is adapted from a novel by Albert Simonin and the screenplay is by Becker and Simonin. Simonin went on to write several more films and the character of Max was used in two further narratives, both from Simonin novels but co-scripted by Michel Audiard. Jean Gabin appeared in the second film but not the third, which became two one hour TV episodes, I think. These two later appearances of Max seemed to have been more aligned to crime comedies. Comedy is touched on lightly in Grisbi which is primarily a violent gangster feature. However, one central sequence has become fondly remembered and may have been influential on later filmmakers such as François Truffaut.
Max’s friend and the one person he appears to trust, at least in terms of loyalty, is ‘Riton’ whose real name is Henri Ducros (and played is by René Dary). Riton is loyal but not very bright. When Max wants to disappear for a night he takes Riton to a hideout apartment that he has secretly rented. Everything necessary for a comfortable night is already in the apartment and the two ageing gangsters sit down to a meal of paté and crispbreads washed down by by regional white wine sent by a friend. Max provides bedding and pressed pyjamas as well as a toothbrush for Riton. It could be a sit-com about two old men and when I re-watched the film it was the section of the film that I remembered most clearly – and thoroughly enjoyed.
I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. All I’ll note is that at the end of the film, the narrative returns to Madame Bouche’s restaurant and the final exchanges are in some ways poignant rather than triumphant or defiant. In fact they are almost comic. The narrative treads a fine line between these moments and the violence of treachery and double-crossing. I’ve noted the sexism in terms of the relative lack of agency that the women in the film have. It is striking though that there are several very beautiful young women in the film, all presented in quite provocative costumes. They include the American Marilyn Buferd, the German Dora Doll and the Italian Delia Scala, all active in French cinema around this time. It’s worth mentioning that the presence of young women like these three was a feature of French cinema which helped the films get a release in the UK and US where domestic films were hampered by censorship. It’s odd now to watch the film and see Gabin ogling these young women but resisting the charms of Jeanne Moreau.
In his magisterial ‘Journey Through French Cinema’, the late Bertrand Tavernier argues that Grisbi was twenty years ahead of its time with its depiction of Gabin as Max, an ‘anti-hero’. I think he’s right. He also suggests that Jean Becker had ‘assimilated’ American cinema in his approach but didn’t simply reproduce an American style. I’ve been musing on the American stars who could dominate genre films such as the gangster or more general crime film in the same way as Gabin. Who could be elegant, brutal, strong but capable of lightness etc.? Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart are possibles perhaps? The star most often mentioned is James Cagney and I can understand why, but I still find Gabin to be in a class of his own. The comparison with American cinema is important because the polar has been seen as a vehicle for developing a dialogue with American culture, with ‘modernity’ and big American cars. The trophy young women for the gangsters are also to some extent imported. In terms of French cinema, Becker’s film would become an inspiration for both Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob, le flambeur, 1956) and François Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960). Tavernier pointed out another aspect of Grisbi, that showed Becker was ‘ahead’ of Hollywood – the use of a harmonica theme for Max. (Tavernier thought French productions made more interesting choices of music.)
Jacques Becker was in a sense the link between the early crime melodramas of Jean Renoir some of which he worked on in the 1930s in various capacities and the harsher post-war crime films. His last film, Le trou (1960), a prison-based drama, appeared around the same time as the early New Wave films. Because of his Renoir connections and the quality of his 1950s films, when Becker died comparatively young in 1960, aged 53, his reputation didn’t suffer the dismissal by the younger directors that was meted out to some of his contemporaries. He directed a range of films, not just crime films and I aim to eventually cover the others that are still available.
This classic screened at the Hyde Park Picture House in a good quality 35mm print was viewed by about a 100 people. Given the box office figures for art films reported in Charles Gant very informative ‘Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound the attendance was reassuring. Roy has also raised concerns about this issue on this blog. It is true to say that French films, and especially by François Truffaut, have usually performed well at the UK box office.
I first saw the film a few years after its initial release at a Film Society in a 16mm print. I and my friends were impressed by the striking visual and aural style of the film; shot in black and white Franscope. The three protagonists, Jules (Oscar Werner), Jim (Henry Serre) and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) were fascinating characters beautifully played by the leading actors. And the supporting cast was excellent, including several attractive and skilled actresses: frequently the case in French films.
The film is adapted from a relatively short novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. The story commences in la belle époque, the period before World War I. This period is beautifully reproduced with fine inputs from the Costume Designer Fred Capel. The part, set in Paris, is brought to an end by World I. Here Truffaut provides a series of archive sequences of the conflict, but it is emphasised by changes to the aspect ratio – twice the footage is stretched in to anamorphic frame. After the war there are sequences in Austria and then again in France. Footage at one point of Nazi book burning shows us to have reached 1933. The film closes in a crematorium.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white widescreen by Raul Coutard. The camera is constantly on the move – with pans, tracks, circulating camera, even zooms (which on this occasion work) and a wipe. And there are frequent lap dissolves and jump cuts. In that sense it fits into the unconventionality (for the period) of the nouvelle vague. The editor Claudine Bouché has mastered an exceedingly demanding plot and set of shots. The soundtrack by Témoin contributes important aspects to the film’s impact. The music score by George Delerue is varied and inventive. Apparently the Production Design was also by Fred Capel, but he is uncredited. It is likely that some responsibility, given the use of locations, fell on the ‘continuity girl’, Suzanne Schiffman,
Props, plot references and film inserts are also noticeable. There are statues, photographs and paintings which seem significant. Apart from cinema there are references to theatre and literature. This provides a complex web of signifiers surrounding the characters. And there are visual and aural motifs – notably an hourglass which set limits on the time.
The focus of the story is the two friends of the title. Catherine is much less developed and she remains enigmatic. In a conversation between Jules and Jim she is referred t as ‘flighty’. A critic (Dudley Andrews) describes her as ‘pure woman (spontaneous, tender, cruel).’ The film, in the voice of the narrator (Michel Subor), supports this viewpoint. So the lead woman is really a male construct. This is probably the most serious flaw in the film.
This is a film that can seen and re-seen, offering discoveries at every viewing. And the quality of the style remains fresh after any number of viewings.
Seeing a film in its original format nowadays is a special pleasure. So it is worth noting for readers for whom Leeds is accessible that the Hyde Park is screening Andrei Rublev (USSR 1966 – on Feb. 22nd) in a 35mm prints, [but not Alphaville which is a DCP, my mistake].
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is the latest cinema re-release by the British Film Institute. The film has often been argued to be the first ‘French New Wave’ film or at least an important precursor to the New Wave proper which began with Chabrol’s Le beau Serge in the same year. I showed the film as part of an evening class considering ‘A new look at the French New Wave‘ in 2009 and I thought it might be useful to post those notes here.
Outline (no spoilers)
This film has a complex plot with narrative twists. These are concerned with two separate narratives that become intertwined. In the first narrative an adulterous couple set up a serious crime which goes wrong when the man is trapped in a lift. In the second a young couple go on a spree when the boy steals the car of the man in the lift. Once linked the two stories lead to a typical noir conclusion.
Ascenseur pour l’échafaud became a commercially successful film offering action, suspense, crime and twisted romance. In some ways traditional in featuring a ‘locked room’ crime, the narrative also embraces the Hitchcockian romance thriller. Because of its inclusion of younger characters, innovative camerawork and direction and a stunning jazz score by Miles Davis, the film also feels much more modern than most 1950s films. However, given the relatively ‘straight’ treatment of its material, it is distinguished from the later New Wave films by Godard (À bout de souffle) and Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste) which utilise similar genre elements, but treat them in a more ‘playful’ way.
Like the young Cahiers critics, director Louis Malle was obsessed with cinema. But instead of writing about film like his contemporaries who attended the Cinémathèque and wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, he plunged straight into learning about filmmaking. Originally enrolled to study science at the Sorbonne, Malle switched to the French film school IDHEC. He never completed the course because he took up an offer to become an assistant to Jacques Cousteau the underwater explorer. Malle soon proved to be a wonderful underwater photographer. He also learned direction and editing and at the age of 23 he shared a Palme d’Or with Cousteau as co-director at Cannes in 1956 for the documentary film The Silent World. Malle also had experience of observing/assisting director Robert Bresson and in 1957 he began work on his own first feature film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. He thus became one of the youngest of all the ‘young directors’ of la nouvelle vague. After the success of his first film, Malle quickly followed up with the controversial Les Amants (The Lovers), again with Jeanne Moreau. This was a far less likely candidate for the New Wave, but Malle’s third film Zazie dans le métro (1960) placed him back alongside Truffaut with a zany comedy about a small girl whizzing about Paris with her uncle, complete with cinematic references and jokes. Malle went on to make a further twenty-seven features, including several documentaries and films made in the US in English. The American critic Pauline Kael noted that Malle’s refusal to work within a specific genre or any other form of categorisation of style or thematic meant that he was often dismissed as a dilettante. The high quality of many of his films suggests that this was a bad mistake by those critics.
No other French director of the 1960s, outside the Cahiers group, has had such wide international recognition. Is this particular film really New Wave? It seems sensible to classify Ascenseur pour l’échafaud as at least a significant precursor to the New Wave for the following reasons:
- Louis Malle was undeniably a ‘young first-time (fiction) feature filmmaker’ and the film narrative includes a young couple who represented the ‘problem youth’ of 1950s European and American culture;
- the film was shot on the streets of Paris by Henri Decaë who along with Raoul Coutard would introduce the innovative cinematography of the New Wave (like Coutard, Decaë was experienced as a documentary camera operator, having served with the French Army in WW2);
- the film was based on a ‘Serie Noire’ novel by Noël Calef and is in many ways an amalgam of the American B film noir with the French policier/polar;
- Malle was already involved with a production company, NEF which had already co-produced Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and would go on to produce all of Malle’s films.
These four features of the production would be echoed in subsequent New Wave films by other directors. It’s also important to note that Ascenseur pour l’échafaud was a traditional genre film in terms of its structure and in Jeanne Moreau it had an actor with real presence who had been performing since the late 1940s both on the stage and in films, including Touchez pas au grisbi with the great Jean Gabin. Moreau fought to make the role of Florence bigger than it was in the novel. The male lead, Maurice Ronet was another theatre-trained actor who had started in films in 1949 and was established in French Cinema before Ascenseur pour l’échafaud made him an international star. Moreau and Ronet both appeared in films during the New Wave period and subsequently for New Wave directors. Moreau because of Jules et Jim, is now remembered as a ‘New Wave star’, whereas Ronet is remembered for his work in Malle’s films (especially Le feu follet, 1963) and his lead in René Clair’s Plein soleil (1960). These seem like arbitrary distinctions. A closer look at the credits of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud shows several future ‘players’ in the New Wave. Jean-Claude Brialy has a walk-on part, Jean Rabier, a future cinematographer, is an assistant here alongside Henri Decaë. The Bresson connection is apparent in the scenes in which Julien (Ronet) is trapped in the lift; Bresson was one of the more ‘personal’ directors who was valued by the Cahiers critics. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is a polar (the French term for a crime picture is virtually untranslatable and refers to a broader genre than the policier or police procedural). In his 1997 book on French Cinema in the 1980s, Phil Powrie, looks back on the development of the polar and suggests three key features of the genre:
- it focuses on a hero who is ‘marginal’ to mainstream society;
- it carries comments on contemporary society;
- it indicates the state of French-American cultural exchange.
We could fruitfully look for these three features in many of the films of the New Wave and not just those which are obviously polars based on American pulp fiction sources. The focus on young characters in a changing society is there in most New Wave films and the ‘play’ with American culture at this moment in French post-war history is evident everywhere. It’s apparent in the pinball machines in the cafés, the incursion of American jazz onto the soundtrack, the ubiquity of American cars and the references to Hollywood. (Although in most of the films, and especially in Truffaut’s, it’s mixed with traditional aspects of French popular culture.) Again this wasn’t necessarily ‘new’ and is evident in earlier polars, such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956). Also quoted as a precursor of the New Wave, this was the first of Melville’s attempts to use the conventions of American crime films to tell French stories. The importance of the extensive Miles Davis score in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud also links up with the work of another, later, New Wave figure, Jacques Demy with his obsession over American musicals. In one sense though, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is different. This is in its political references. The marginalised hero of the film, Julien, is an ex-paratrooper who has returned to France after fighting in the colonial wars in Indo-China and North Africa. He transfers his ‘action skills’ to crime, operating in the world of oil industry espionage. Along with the presence of the young couple on the run, this feels like a French parallel of the concerns of American B noirs. The appearance of the German couple as tourists also prompted comments. Louis Malle was often a controversial director and his later films dealt with taboo issues such as the Occupation in France (Lacombe Lucien, 1974 and Au revoir les enfants, 1987). More than most New Wave films (Godard’s Le petit soldat is the exception), Ascenseur pour l’échafaud seems to be aware of the issues of the moment.
Powrie, Phil (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: OUP
Jeanne Moreau (b. 1928) is slightly more problematic to categorise as a star of la nouvelle vague. She was, and still is, a major international star, who began in films nearly a decade before the New Wave was established. She also had an important stage career in the 1950s. She was also 30 by the time she appeared in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold, 1958), the Louis Malle film often argued to herald the New Wave to come. Nothing wrong with being 30, of course, but she wasn’t the ‘young star’ of the later films.
If we do want to include Jeanne Moreau in this collection, I would argue for three factors. First would be her work with Louis Malle, with Les amants (1959) and Viva Maria!(1965) plus a smaller part in Le feu follet (1963). (She also had (very) brief cameos in other New Wave films.)
As Catherine in Jules et Jim (1961), Jeanne Moreau became one of the iconic figures of the classic period of the French New Wave, although since this was a period film she was separated from Belmondo, Brialy and Léaud as ‘young French characters in contemporary Paris’. She would appear later as ‘the bride who wore black’ in Truffaut’s film of that name in 1968.
Her third claim to New Wave status is the extraordinary range of films that she made in the 1960s, both for French directors on the outer wings of the movement (e.g. Jacques Demy, for whom she starred in La baie des anges (1963)) and directors abroad influenced by the New Wave or already established as auteurs: La Notte (1961) for Antonioni, Eve (1962) for Jo Losey, Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) for Buñuel and two films for Tony Richardson (a Truffaut disciple?) in Mademoiselle (1966) and The Sailor From Gibraltar (1967).
Moreau was a different kind of star. I never thought of her as youthful or vivacious like Anna Karina (although she was in the early 1950s), but she was very sexy in a more cerebral way and had great depth as an actor. This clip from Ascenseur pour l’échafaud shows her image off to perfection. That’s Miles Davis on the soundtrack and the kind of nighttime location shooting in Paris that New Wave directors prized. Moreau could be in an American film noir, but she seems a much more complex character – older, wiser, more fragile and yet more dangerous – than any American femme fatale.
And finally, Jeanne Moreau as a platinum blonde in La baie des anges