Few films are as intimately linked to their scores as Elevator to the Gallows, a movie that if people know typically registers as “the French one with the Miles Davis soundtrack.”
It’s impossible to discuss Elevator without acknowledging the groove Davis gives the film, a mélange of melancholy and yearning and sensuality. I dare you to find an appraisal that doesn’t mention the scenes in which Jeanne Moreau stalks the damp, nighttime streets of Paris in search of her lover to Davis’s mournful, muted trumpet theme. The iconic power of these sequences owes as much to Davis as to director Louis Malle (making his fiction feature debut) and the great cinematographer Henri Decaë (who was not far removed from Jean-Pierre Melville’s esteemed heist film Bob le Flambeur).
But Elevator is a punchy picture in its own right, an imperfect but propulsive affair that splits the difference between the 1950s-era French take on the American movies they branded film noir and the New Wave. Elevator is formalist by concept, but it is stylishly conducted, and the techniques used by Malle and Decaë when they freed their camera on Moreau amid a dreary, neon-lit Paris would be embraced and expanded upon by that coming deluge of filmmakers who rediscovered the liberating powers of the camera, the aesthetics of natural light, and the rhythms of realism.
The scoring process for Elevator—also known by the much-sexier French title Ascenseur pour L’Échafaud—would prove likewise influential on Davis. That legendary, impromptu project impacted Davis’s best-known album, his approach to recording, and jazz in general.
I revisited Elevator to the Gallows by way of Ashley Kahn’s Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, a splendid and self-explanatorily titled tome to which I am late to the party. The experience of recording the score, according to Kahn, gave Davis “the opportunity to break out of conventional structures and experiment like never before.” Davis’s approach to the Elevator music would steer him for years to come and shape the 1959 sessions for the classic album Kind of Blue.
The collaboration between Malle and Davis was a right-place-right-time phenomenon, although accounts differ on how they met.
In late 1957, Elevator was in the can and without a soundtrack. Malle, a jazz-obsessed 25-year-old fresh off a codirecting credit with Jacques Cousteau on the Academy Award-winning The Silent World and a stint assisting the estimable Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped, sought to establish his own cinematic voice with a pulpy thriller based on a French crime novel. He previously scored a short film using a Charlie Parker tune (he would employ Parker’s music again in 1971’s lovely Murmur of the Heart), and Elevator contained an homage to Davis in the form of an album cover that peeks above a stack of records in a character’s flat.
At 31, Davis was a few years removed from kicking heroin and reigniting his career. Though he was riding a creative surge, Davis was between regular bands and label obligations, and he was in Paris for a brief engagement as a guest performer with a group that included Kenny Clarke, an expatriate jazz percussionist who played with Davis on the sessions that became Birth of the Cool (1949).
Kahn, via Miles: The Autobiography, writes that Davis met Malle through Juliette Greco, a Parisian actress and singer, and Davis’s former lover. In the book Malle on Malle, the filmmaker tells interviewer and editor Philip French that he knew of Davis’s appearance in Paris and arranged a meeting with the help of writer and jazz enthusiast Boris Vian. In a typically insightful essay for The New Yorker, film critic and music lover Richard Brody relates a story of Malle and Davis being introduced via the French music producer and promoter Marcel Romano.
This much is generally agreed upon: Davis saw the film only twice, once during a screening in which he and Malle discussed where music was needed and again during the recording session; with the exception of Clarke, the band included three local musicians—Pierre Michelot (bass), René Urtreger (piano) and Barney Wilen (saxophone)—with whom Davis had only days’ worth of history; the score was recorded in a single, overnight jam in a studio on the Champs-Élysées (the Criterion Collection release features a crisp print of the film as well as footage from the session); the music was largely improvised as the group watched the film, with Davis giving the musicians a couple chords and encouraging a functional freedom within the structure of the scenes (Romano asserts Davis conceived the primary theme beforehand).
Kahn calls the Elevator score “an ad hoc tour de force” and observes, “In a manner that anticipates the suspended effect of a composition like Kind of Blue’s ‘Flamenco Sketches,’ ‘Le Petit Bal’ on the Ascenseur soundtrack eschewed any chordal movement at all, allowing Miles to project a mood by simply playing off one scale, subtly implying a lyrical line.” In Malle on Malle, the director says of Davis’s score, “It was not like a lot of film music emphasizing or trying to add the emotion that is implicit in the images… It was a counterpoint, it was elegiac—and it was somewhat detached.” As Brody notes, “The harmonic simplicity and thematic fragmentation of the ‘Elevator’ music was neither a caprice nor a stopgap; it was a theory in motion, the very core of Davis’s great new idea and the idea of his great new style…”
If Elevator itself isn’t quite the first shot of a great new style/wave, it is not short of pleasures or prestige. Moreau practically melts onto the screen in the opening shot, a close-up that finds her Florence murmuring, “I am the one who can’t take anymore. I love you. I love you…” The camera pulls back to reveal her on the phone, the illicit nature of her relationship with the man on the other end of the line, Julien (Maurice Ronet), made clear. Then the peal of Davis’s trumpet, and a light, bittersweet blues…
The plot is overstuffed, and Malle careens with inconsistent tone between story arcs that spin off from one another, veer in different directions, and ultimately reconnect. Julien, we quickly learn, is about to kill Florence’s husband, a vaguely bad guy—there is brief talk of war and Algeria and a pipeline—and the obstacle to their love. Julien, however, becomes trapped in the titular elevator while attempting to flee, and his car is stolen by an impulsive young couple (whom the girl will later dramatically deem “the tragic lovers”); the pair ends up involved in the murder of two German tourists (the film’s most intelligent and interesting characters), and the police pursue Julien for the wrong crime while Moreau wanders the streets, straying in and out of familiar haunts, in search of him.
It can be fun to watch a young filmmaker play with genre, and Malle here creates an oh-so-French pastiche with skill and self-aware wit. The black cat’s appearance after the initial murder always makes me smile, as does Florence chastising a little girl who will run off with a key piece of evidence in the killing of Florence’s husband. Still, Elevator contains some sloppy moments; amid cuts of the moving lift, from which Julien dangles after breaking through a hatch in the floor, there is a shot of him hanging static, and how a pivotal grappling hook makes it from a buildingtop rail that hangs above a patio to the street is unclear (maybe it was the cat?).
Malle would go on to make better films, including Atlantic City (1980) and the devastating, semi-autobiographical Au Revoir les Enfants (1987). To paraphrase something Davis often said, “sometimes you have to play a long time to play like yourself.” Yes, Elevator may be a confection, but, like Davis per Miles: The Autobiography, “I’m a fiend when it comes to good pastry, and the French make the best as far as I’m concerned.”