Criterion Sunday 335: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, aka Lift to the Scaffold, 1958)

Perhaps this is just a stylish crime film with a sort of lovers-on-the-run theme (even if one pair of lovers are very much stuck), but it seems to be a pure expression of its historical moment. It’s channelling the cool of bebop jazz via its Miles Davis score, looking forward to the nouvelle vague with its location shooting and expressive camerawork, and it is just so indelibly French — there’s something about that extreme close-up of Jeanne Moreau saying “Je t’aime, je t’aime” over the phone that is almost camp in its essential Frenchness, the core of how that entire culture would be refracted through anglophone media for decades to come. It may not excavate any deeper psychological truths, but it expertly captures the nerves of people trying to pull off a plot and getting a bit waylaid, along with the fatalistic comedy that seems to unfold as our protagonist, in his perfectionist desire to ensure that one murder is untraceable, unwittingly gets on the hook for another he’s not responsible for. In the end, it relies on our shared (genre-rooted perhaps) understanding about the efficacy of the police, something I don’t think can be relied upon in the years since, but it looks and sounds amazing even after so many years.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Roger Nimier (based on the novel by Noël Calef); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronel, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin, Lino Ventura; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 17 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 271: Touchez pas au grisbi (aka Honour Among Thieves, 1954)

Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or a couple years earlier already feels like a generation away from this film (and admittedly does have a period setting), but where that may have been a tight narrative that set up every sequence and followed through with resolve, this somehow feels more like a meandering atmosphere piece. At length the plot does come out, and it revolves around the “loot” (grisbi) of the title, but more than being about a swindle gone wrong, it’s about ageing gangsters reckoning with their mortality. Chief among these is Jean Gabin, who made something of a comeback with this film after years in the wilderness. As Mr Max, he knows he’s getting old — and as if to emphasise this, director Becker has him getting ready for bed, in silk pyjamas brushing his teeth, or looking balefully into a mirror while pinching his chin fat. He surrounds himself with much younger and more glamorous women, as all of his compatriots seem to do (one of them is Jeanne Moreau), almost as if to stave off the effects of age, but they all know they’re headed into obsolescence, and they lash out with regularity against the women and the younger thugs (like the well-built Lino Ventura, the chief antagonist). There’s a brutishness to it, stylishly evoked with all kinds of looming dark shadows around every corner, but it all seems pathetic more than anything else: few of them really seem in control, though Max is more effective at projecting this than some of the others. It’s a film about feelings and sadness, couched in a gangster form, and has more than a hint of The Godfather (not least in the repeated musical motif, very redolent of Nino Rota’s work on that film).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s another five minutes or so of the Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray) documentary about the director, with the excerpt focusing on this film, naturally. We hear a little bit from Lino Ventura as well as the screenwriter and the original author Albert Simonin, plus a brief appearance from Truffaut to speak about Becker’s influential style.
  • There’s are a few brief interviews with the stars, including one from 20 years later with Lino Ventura (Grisbi was his debut, but by this point he’s an established star), with the composer Jean Wiener focusing on the brief snippet of score that Becker preferred to use (though he’d written much more), and with actor Daniel Cauchy who has a small role as a young thug.
  • The only other extra is a trailer, four minutes of punchy action from the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Maurice Griffe (based on the novel by Albert Simonin); Cinematographer Pierre Montazel; Starring Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, René Dary, Jeanne Moreau; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 28 October 2019.