Louis Malle’s 1958 film Ascenseur pour l’échafraud (Elevator to the Gallows) is legendary for a number of reasons. It helped usher in the French New Wave film movement, it made Jeanne Moreau a star, and it has a haunting score by Miles Davis.
The film is a crime drama about two lovers, Florence (Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet), who plot to murder her husband and run off together. After killing the husband, Julien becomes trapped in the building’s elevator, leaving Florence to wander the streets of Paris wondering what happened. Meanwhile, a young couple steal Julien’s car and go on a joyride ending in another murder, for which, because of the car, the trapped Julien becomes the prime suspect. After various plot twists and turns, all guilty parties are inevitably caught.
It is a remarkably assured Hitchcockian thriller from the 24-year-old first-time feature director. One sees elements of the New Wave in the seeming offhandedness of the younger couple on their crime spree and in the “natural” nighttime cinematography shot on the streets of Paris. Jeanne Moreau was nearly 30 when the film was made, but this was the first time the camera, and audience, got a chance to fall in love with her expressive face, sad eyes, and pouting lips - a love affair that was to continue through her long career.
But it is the soundtrack that makes the film most memorable for me. Although it plays during less than twenty minutes of the film, the impact of the moody music is tremendous. Even Malle said, “I strongly believe that without Miles Davis’s score the film would not have had the critical and public response that it had.” Davis just happened to be in Paris in December 1957 as Malle was finishing the film. After agreeing to do the score, he was shown the film a couple of times and then recorded the entire soundtrack over the course of one night, with a band that included musicians that he hadn’t worked with before that trip to Europe (although they toured together at that time).
This soundtrack represents early inklings of the modal style that Davis was to make such a splash with fifteen months later when he recorded the seminal Kind of Blue. He does away with chord changes and plays the slow and triste melodies (in the key of D minor) over the rhythm section. It was Davis’s first attempt at scoring a film and largely improvised on the spot.
The impact on the film is felt immediately. It opens with an extreme close-up of Moreau’s face as she talks on the phone with Julien, pledging her love to him as they plan the murder. As the credits role, the quiet wail of Miles on trumpet sets the stage for the star-crossed lovers to fall. A variation on this title tune is played later in the film as Florence wanders at night on the Champs-Élysées. Other times, Miles just uses drums or drums/bass to help build suspense. Finally, when the gig is up at the end of the film, another tragic and moody melody takes us to “Fin.”
I can’t recommend this atmospheric film highly enough. It is like a fresh baguette slathered in brie and downed with a glass of fine French red, all while contemplating the futility of human existence and love's culpability. For me, and I imagine for all jazz lovers, the soundtrack (available on CD) is what I wait for when watching Elevator. Rather than being truly melancholy, it is exciting to see the mesmerizing images and hear the doleful melodies fit together so perfectly.
The scene that embodies all the innovative elements of Elevator is the one of Florence wandering the streets at night. They were using a newly available fast black-and-white film, which allowed them to get good exposures at night. Apparently, the cinematographer, Henri Decaë, was pushed along in a wheelchair as he filmed. With the Miles Davis soundtrack and Moreau the very picture of tortured heartbreak, the result is magical.