Though the advent of the Nouvelle Vague is usually credited to the first features of its most prominent film makers (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol), it might be said that its roots existed in certain early features by Jean-Pierre Melville, and also 'Lift To The Scaffold' which preceded the likes of 'Breathless' by a year or two. They were not part of the movement perhaps, but they shared several things in common with the early Nouvelle Vague films - outdoor location shoots, natural acting and dialogue, low budgets; essentially rejecting the traditional production and shooting methods of conventional French film making, which the Cahiers du Cinema collective denounced as too literary and classical.
'Lift To The Scaffold' unfolds in typical noir fashion. Two lovers speak on the telephone, both repeating "I love you" over and over. We can sense they are not married, and when we see Julien (Maurice Ronet) with a gun in his possession, we sense murder is on his mind. The pair have been plotting the perfect crime, to kill Florence's (Jeanne Moreau) husband, a wealthy arms dealer, so that they might be together. Of course we know what they say about the best laid plans. What Malle does though is show the preparation involved in committing the crime in painstaking detail, though refrains from actually showing us, or letting us hear the actual act being carried out (he cuts to Julien's secretary sharpening pencils, which would also block out the sound). Malle then shows the aftermath, as Julien tries to make Florence's husbands death look like suicide.
The irony here is that the crime has been conducted so well that police assume it was suicide. However, Julien's attempt to retrieve evidence he left at the scene sets in motion a chain of events that would have greater consequences for him than being charged with the murder he actually committed. His car is stolen by a young couple who then kill two German tourists, and everything points to Julien having committed the crime, whilst he unknowingly is trapped in a lift back at his place of work. All the while, Florence searches the streets of Paris for him as he failed to meet her at their designated time and place. Picked up by the police for having no ID, she inadvertently increases the suspicion against Julien by jealously suggesting he was cavorting with another woman (the murder of the Germans was carried out by a couple).
'Lift To The Scaffold' also features an excellent Miles Davis score which has been rightly considered famous in its own right, capturing the sounds and atmosphere of Parisienne nights and the loneliness of Florence as she wanders in the wet early hours, wondering what became of Julien. Malle's debut is a film whose strengths reside in its economy. Though the plot twists and turns, he doesn't try to overcomplicate things; he keeps it natural and simple. The set up is familiar from dozens of films before it and after, but retains a sense of freshness and vigour that sets it apart from films you could compare it to. It's the film that introduced the wonderful actress Jeanne Moreau to the world and which started Malle's long and successful career both in France and latterly the US. 4/5