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Miles, Malle and That Movie: Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud (1958)

BY Martin Hall

“To examine his career is to examine the history of jazz from the mid-'40s to the early '90s, since he was in the thick of almost every important innovation and stylistic development in the music during that period.”

All Music

It was sixty years ago today. Well not ‘today’, but in January of 1958 Louis Malle released a film scored by Miles Davis. Miles Davis was a superlative jazz musician, although he would object to the term. If you’re not aware of his work you will certainly know his name but this is what All Music, the database, have to say about him: ‘To examine his career is to examine the history of jazz from the mid-’40s to the early ’90s, since he was in the thick of almost every important innovation and stylistic development in the music during that period.’

But there is a lesser known aspect to his genius, and that is as a film composer. There have been a handful of films made about the life and work of Miles Davis and some involving him as a contributor – whether as a performer, a musician or both. In Rolf de Heer’s 1991 film, Dingo, an Australian jazz fan travels to Europe to meet his hero, Billy Cross, played by Davis. He has had cameo’s on the small screen too, in Miami Vice and Crime Story, and even plays a street performer in the Bill Murray Christmas film, Scrooged.  More recently, in 2015, Don Cheadle wrote, directed and starred in the biopic Miles Ahead. Davis scored two films, Jack Johnson, the documentary of the first African American Heavyweight Boxing Champion, and Louis Malle’s 1958 French film noir, Ascenseur Pour L’Echauffaud, or Lift to the Scaffold the music for which was released on an album at the time, called Jazz Track, which was nominated for the 1960 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance, and later, as a Ascenseur Pour L’Echauffaud soundtrack album.

Photo by @martenbjork

Louis Malle’s work is a film with an evocative and powerfully sombre mood; a cool and passionate film about love, betrayal, and mistaken identity. The film follows two narratives which intersect and overlap. One in which, Madame Carala, played by the transcendent Jeanne Moreau, waits for her lover, Julien Tavernier, to return to her after his murder of her husband, and his own boss, Monsieur Carala. Madame Carala wonders the streets of Paris waiting to rendezvous with Julien, but he doesn’t arrive as his escape from his murderous endeavour goes astray when the titular lift, which he uses to leave the building, is deactivated when it is switched off by the building attendant, trapping him for the entire night. The other narrative concerns Louis and Véronique, two lovers, who steal a car, which belongs to the trapped Julien Tavernier and joy ride off to a motel. The complication arises when Madame Carala sees her lover’s car drive away containing one man and a young woman, who she of course supposes is Julien himself. Adding to these complications, when Louis and Véronique check in to their motel, using Julien Tavernier’s name no less, try to steal a car, a struggle ensues, and Louis murders its owner with the gun found in Tavernier’s car. When Julien is found and subsequently arrested in the morning, for the murder at a motel he has never visited, Madame Carala figures out what has happened and finds the young couple in their apartment. In his attempts to clear away evidence of his wrongdoings Louis returns to the motel and incriminates himself with photos from the previous evening, whilst in his own defence, Julien sends the police to his office building to prove his innocence and accidentally incriminates himself in the murder of his boss, implicating, too, his lover, Madame Carala.

About his own film, Louis Malle stated that, ‘what [Miles Davis] did was remarkable. It transformed the film. I remember very well how it was without the music, but when we got to the final mix and added the music, it seemed like the film suddenly took off’. The film is one which actively seeks to move away from France’s previous generations of filmmakers, a stuffier and more reserved cinema. In the same way that the forthcoming French New Wave sought to move away from the cinema du papa. The critic Robin Buss argued that whilst the music in contemporary cinema was particularly French, the use of Miles Davis’ score for Ascenseur signals quite a different message indeed. For the generation to which Louis Malle belonged, the use of American jazz signalled a rejection of the ethos of the era to which directors like Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné belonged. Malle’s own description of the score leans towards this sense of revolution and modernisation, suggesting, ‘It was not like a lot of film music, emphasizing or trying to add to the emotion that is implicit in the images and the rest of the soundtrack. It was counterpoint, it was elegiac.’

Photo by @wimvanteinde

“In that one night, the whole score was recorded – I think that makes the score of Ascenseur unique. It’s one of the very few film scores which are completely improvised; I don’t think Miles Davis had had time to prepare anything”

Louis Malle

The essence of Davis as a musician has often tied to the fact that he retained an ability to play moving solos that endeared him to audiences and that he is a reminder of the music’s essential quality of boundless invention. In his autobiography, Davis details his recording for the session for the soundtrack saying that, ‘since it was about a murder and was supposed to be a suspenseful movie, I used this old, very gloomy, dark building where I had the musicians play’. Malle reflects, ‘In that one night, the whole score was recorded – I think that makes the score of Ascenseur unique. It’s one of the very few film scores which are completely improvised; I don’t think Miles Davis had had time to prepare anything’. The mood created by Davis proved to be inspired with open-ended solos which lend themselves perfectly to the psychological dimensions of the characters. Ultimately, this improvisation results in an impressionistic and, at times, surreal work.

Malle’s own adoration for the soundtrack sums up its triumph when he points out that, ‘I strongly believe that without Miles Davis’ score the film would not have had the critical and public response that it had’.