By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 20, 2009
In 1957, Louis Malle was 24 years. He was filthy rich. Incredibly handsome. And prodigiously talented --- he had already co-directed and shot Jacques Cousteau's Oscar-winning documentary, “The Silent World.” Now he was ready to make his first feature.
He chose an overlooked noir novel about a man who kills his lover's husband, only to get trapped in the elevator while fleeing. His car gets stolen; complications multiply. Meanwhile, we --- and his lover --- wait to see if he'll get free before the police arrive.
Malle co-authored a clever, stylish script. He gave the film an ironic title: “Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud,” or “Elevator to the Gallows.” As the lover, he hired Jeanne Moreau, a successful but not incendiary stage actress. And as his cinematographer, he chose the young innovator, Henri Decae.
And then this first-time director got Miles Davis to improvise and record the soundtrack.
Davis was then at the pinnacle. He had revolutionized jazz once already. Now he was turning away from hard-charging bursts of sound to a cooler, modal style that would change the dominant style of American jazz once again.
What could he have possibly seen in Louis Malle?
“I was in Paris to play as a guest soloist for a few weeks,” Davis later explained. “I met Louis through Juliette Greco. He told me he had always loved my music. I agreed to write the musical score for his film because it was a great learning experience --- I had never written a music score for a film before.”
Davis didn't really “write” this one, either. Oh, he said he “looked at the rushes of the film and got musical ideas to write down.” But his real genius was in hiring the great American jazz drummer Kenny Clarke and three French musicians and putting them in an environment that mirrored the mood of the movie. As Davis recalled: “Since it was about a murder and was supposed to be a suspense movie, I used this old, gloomy, dark building where I had the musicians play. I thought it would give the music atmosphere, and it did.”
The soundtrack was recorded in a single, champagne-fueled session as Moreau and Malle looked on. At one point, a bit of Davis's lip blew into his mouthpiece; he pressed on. There were repeated takes of certain ideas; a number of tracks on the soundtrack are variations of earlier cuts.
No matter. This is one of the greatest jazz soundtracks in film --- some say the greatest. The trumpet couldn't be more evocative: mostly slow and breathy, thoughtful and tender, lonely and okay about it. In a word: cool. The quintessence of cool. [To buy the soundtrack of "Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud" from Amazon.com, click here.]
There was much to praise about the film, It used Paris like nothing before it; Malle presaged the New Wave. The final shot was made with a cameraman in a wheelchair; it proved that filmmakers could shoot at night without massive equipment. The film made Jeanne Moreau a movie star. And it launched Louis Malle's brilliant career.
The irony of the Malle-Davis collaboration is that Malle never explored noir again --- indeed, he made it a point to direct only one movie per genre. But the ideas of composition that Davis was working out in this movie soundtrack would come to full bloom a few years later, in his classic Kind of Blue (with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans).
The soundtrack, mesmerizing and evocative at the time, has become more important as the years go by. It's a thrilling artifact and a deep experience for the serious jazz fan. And if you're shallow like me --- if you like music without lyrics at dinner --- you get two CDs for the price of one. The first is about the airy beauty of the music. The second is about guests asking what they're listening to.
In this case, your friends will know who's on that trumpet. But they'll have no idea this soundtrack even exists. Which makes you fractionally as cool as Miles.