The point about Lift to the Scaffold is that it is a film that could only be made in its precise time- it is a postwar film- made about the conflict between the old and the young and even more so between memory and forgetfulness. We open in one of the great scenes of French cinema- an industrialist sits at his desk, and is murdered by one of his employees- a paratrooper- who fought in IndoChina and Algeria. As the paratrooper- Julien- attempts to cover up for this murder, his mistress roams the streets of Paris trying to find him and two youngsters, having stolen his car, set off in it towards a motel at which they will eventually kill two Germans. The story may seem implausible at times- it all hinges on two elementary mistakes by the murderers- a rope left on a balcony and a set of photos forgotten at a shop- but it encapsulates important statements about postwar France and the relationships between youth and age, war and peace.
We have here a quartet of lovers- two in what must be their late twenties, two in what must be their late teens. Malle's observation of the difference between the two couples is acute- the teenage girl and guy are obviously worse matched than their older comrades. The younger woman is actually the most pleasant character in the drama- her boyfriend is a scoundrel without redeeming features. The two older characters are fatally damaged. She has married the industrialist Carala- an amalgam of establishment vices- who profits from war and devastation. He works for Carala- but was formerly a soldier. Carala's contempt for Julien is quite devastating- he calls him an 'angel'- he tells him that paratroopers are angels and mocks his virtues. Julien though has his darker sides- he is a ruthlessly efficient killer, quiet and effective. As for Moreau's character- she is single minded and possessive. Here we have a commentary on youth and age- but more importantly a commentary on the division between the twenty year olds who have been to fight and the teenagers who haven't. You saw it in the 1920s (something C.S. Lewis remorselessly mocks in the Pilgrim's Regress) that men who had not been to war felt that they needed to complain about it more, because they had not fought. Likewise the younger guy in this film seems to need to act the soldier, the brutal murderer, the protester against Algiers and Vietnam, because he was not there. The true face of the war is psychopathic, silent and efficient.
I think this film represents one of the many highs of Jeanne Moreau's career- as an actress she is perfect here. She holds the camera from start to finish with a fine expression of fatalism- but what really captured me was less her interventions in the actual action- she doesn't do that much in the film- than in her soliloquies. Moreau's character is lost for the majority of the film- lost in a labyrinth and attempting to find her lover- either to find him within the walls of mistrust that are built up after their plan goes awry or to find him once the law is closing in around him- once he is taking the lift right to the scaffold. Sherlock Holmes described Irene Adler as 'the woman' and there is a quality of that about Moreau in this film- she is incredibly able, able to disarm the teenagers and deal with the police. But what she is unable to do is to deal with the exigencies of fate- there she is lost within the labyrinth that her love has taken her into. Her love here is an animating force that dominates her- destroys her- it renders her mad, as ignorant to the realities of life as she is to the realities of the cars that race past her on the street as she wonders it searching for Julien.
Over the top of this film is the haunting music of Miles Davis- the music is perhaps itself a character within the movie and ties together the strands into a coherent whole. Moreau's character and the issues of war torn France become a unity which moves irreconcilably towards a close. What Davis's music symbolises is the innate corruption of French society- the society over which Carala presides. Even the police are here seen as corrupt or at least brutal- one of the most effective scenes in the film is a police interview with Julien which displays as well as any scene on film the terror of the tyranny of the state. Julien is surrounded by policemen, whirling around him in the dark, the light is focused on him and they keep on asking the same questions- again and again and again- not letting him relax. Superb cinematography, superb score and the image of encroaching doom combine to make that scene effective: but all of those also place it in the context of a plot where the war has moved from the foreign world of colonial territories, back to the home front where techniques learnt in Algiers, and practiced by the Caralas of the world to make money on the back of broken bones, become the normal instruments of justice.
This is a film with a political message- but its a message for its own times. We may forget how close Europe was to war in the fifties and sixties- watching a film like Lift to the Scaffold reminds us how close it- especially France- was. At the end of the film, the heroine proclaims that her pathological love for Julien will survive her old age- it is entirely true- she thinks she is proclaiming the endless nature of love, in reality she proclaims that the wounds of war and the pathology of the bloodiest century of the human era will be with us for a long time to come.