Elevator to the Gallows:
A Jazz Film of Collaborative Integrity
Miles Davis Louis Malle
Jazz is a way of creation that is greater than the genre of music itself – it is a level of skill and artistic ingenuity that can be applied to any medium. Once an artist has achieved a certain familiarity with their medium the opportunity for creation is only dependent upon the creator and their personal identity, which is comprised of their experiences, heritage and inspirations. (Khatchadourian, p.108-115) This complex body from which artists take their ideas surely takes years of refinement to master their medium, but only the true masters have clarity in their vision and are able to communicate clearly the ideas that they envision to their audience.
For the French film director Louis Malle, it is the careful composition of his visions that makes his films unique from others. In his 1957 production of Elevator to the Gallows he constructed a concise and suspenseful story that captures the interest of the viewer by dramatic lighting, a romantic struggle, and murder. Not only does the plot engage the viewer, the entire presentation is considered and particularly emphasized by the musical score written by Miles Davis, who was a great admirer of Malle’s films. The common elements of film and music begin to enlighten the universal connections between artistic mediums and their use in conjunction with others.
Malle was born in Thumeries of northern France to a priveleged family in 1932, having assisted with Jacques Cousteau and Robert Bresson before making his first film, Elevator to the Gallows or L'Ascenseur pour l'echafaud which was called Frantic in the States. By 1957 Miles Davis had nearly crowned himself atop the jazz scene having earned the right to orchestrate most of the best musicians in the business and in history to accompany him. Davis had played with Charlie Parker in the mid 1940's standardizing his notes in the idiom of hard bop. After years of producing excellent unique recordings Davis carried with him the heart of jazz as we know it with his modal jazz in the late 1950's. By 1959 wih Kind of Blue, Miles was certainly the dominating pulse in jazz. The historic band of Cannonall Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb would forever typify modal jazz and allowed each musicians personality come through their lines and solos by giving each instrument the spce needed to hear them distinctly. The harmonies of one mode could be played for four measures as opposed to chords having specific durations in each measure (Gridley, p. 219-229). The musicians who played Elevator to the Gallows were French and managed to connect with Miles' vision of the ideal sound for Malle's movie. They were Pierre Michelot on the bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, Barney Wilen on tenor and Rene Urtreger on piano. Jazz helped to develop the film noir style as Davis would improvise in front of a screen forming compositions on-the-spot minimal creative frame. In a segment from Quincy Troupe's dialogue with Davis, Miles spoke about his time in France (Chambers, 303-309).
"Then I went to Paris again to play as a guest soloist for a few weeks. And it was during this trip that I met French filmaker Louis Malle through Juliette Greco. He Told me he had always loved my music and that he wanted me to write the musical score for his new film, L'Ascenseur pour l'echafaud. I agreed to do it and it was a great learning experience, because I had never written a music score for a film before. I would look at the rushes of the film and get musical ideas to write down. 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. ...When I got back to New York in December 1957, I was ready to move forward with my music again. I asked Red to come back, and he did. When I heard Monk's gig at Five Spot was ending, I called Trane and told him I wanted him back, and he said, "Okay." Man, when this happened, I knew some real great musical shit was about to go down; I could feel it in my bones. And it happened. It went all the way down." (Troupe, 217-222.)
Film may be the most familiar medium for which our modern era is prepared to understand this phenomenon of entertainment and artistic expression where several mediums are combined to make an entire experience. The visual experience of the film is heightened by the addition of music to create a multi-dimensional, dynamic work of art. This is essentially unique to film, as it has only begun to be explored in other mediums such as applying visual effects to music and musical effects to other forms of visual arts like painting, sculpture, poetry and literature. It is clear that film is quite unique in this sense for it has a vast history and has been able to communicate the artist’s vision most clearly by finding direct connections between actions, settings and musical events, tones and patterns (Khatchadourian, p.116-124). With a culture that is increasingly dependent upon a video form of expression and communication, the other types of artistic expression are subject to compliment the video or film. This is because the way in which we perceive our world is most like a film rather than a painting or symphony.
The connection between Miles Davis and Louis Malle is one of general artistic integrity, for each creator is a master of their medium before the specific ideas that they are representing is even considered. This is where the idea of “jazz” as a mode of creativity is most clearly seen. Forget the meaning of “jazz” as a musical genre for one moment and try to see the interconnectedness between all artists of all mediums. It seems that once an artist has been working in their field for long enough to learn all of the necessary elements of their trade that it is only their individual ability to improvise that makes their work different from others and either a master or another artist. It is a sensation that is obvious to those who have begun the search for this divine level of creation. Malle and Davis certainly can see the respective vision of the other’s work and in their collaboration on Elevator to the Gallows the direct relationship between the scene and the music is a finely balanced expression of both artists. There is a definite freedom that Malle entrusts in Davis to create at his own will, which is undoubtedly a result of Davis’s success and mastery of his art. The connections are distinct and calculated, but this is not a dynamic that can be created by any two artists. Collaborations can fail even when it seems evident that a relationship or similarity is present between artist’s modes of representation.
The connections are in the form as well as in specific events of the film and the score. The black and white film is a simple and dramatic mode that relies on the stark contrast to create the scenes. This can be said in some respect of Davis’s instrumentation, as the trumpet is a simple only three valves capable of making a variety of sounds. The greatest connection is that Davis uses the lack of sound as much as the presence of his notes to create emphasis on the notes that he selects, which is quite similar to the black and white nature of the film technology in the fifties. The direct relationships between musical events and the film events are more obvious to the viewer by the choices that Davis makes as to where he should play and when he should leave the film silent. The notes Davis plays are often indicative of the feelings of the characters especially during moments of tension and exuberance. The music also has common presence as music would in most settings, such as in the bars or
as the car stereo when the very first music is introduced to the film.
With the first musical scene, when the young lovers have stolen Mr. Tavernier’s car (see above), the music played by Davis and his band is indicative of a “joy ride” situation as the young couple is driving away from the place where Mr. Tavernier had left his car. He had to go back up into his office building where he had forgot the grappling hook that he had left on the outside balcony when he escaped after murdering his boss, Mr. Carala whose wife Mr. Tavernier is having an affair. The notes are not directly related to the events, only in the general tone the music further expresses the feelings of the actors and the excitement and wild abandonment of stealing a car from a man that the young girl admires. She is standing up in the car and enjoying the flight of the moving vehicle and the innovation of the convertible rooftop. The next scene where Mrs. Carala is roaming the streets looking for Mr. Tavernier after seeing the young couple drive by in Mr. Tavernier’s car, thinking that Mr. Tavernier has taken the girl and dropped Mrs. Carala, the notes are deliberately timed with the film (see below). As the “Kronenbourg” neon light flashes it echoes the rhythm of the bass line in a repetitive heart beat manner. Then Miles comes in with a characteristic long, scratching note as the bass, drums, and piano work up from a whisper to a full sound. This sequence is repeated throughout the night scene as Mrs. Carala continues to search for Julien Tavernier as a motif for her feelings. The light from the bar is shining on the office building across the street where Mr. Tavernier is captive in the elevator cabin in a rhythm corresponding to the bass line, transferring the focus from Madame Carala to Mr. Tavernier. The music acts as an inner-monologue for the ideas and expressions of Madame Carala as well as for Julien as when he is trapped inside the elevator. At this point it is clear that Miles Davis has established different patterns for each character relationship or element to the greater story.
The slow, low bass notes that build into the long trumpet notes are played during the scenes with Mr. Tavernier and Madame Carala, while the fast saxophone and harder drumming are played during the scenes with the young lovers and their encounters with the German couple. The sound editing is quite precise at moments to deliberately connect the score to the actions in the film. The clearest expression of suspense is when Julien has found a way to remove the floor panel of the elevator cabin and lower him with an electrical chord to try to unlatch the hook that was locking the door of the floor below him in the elevator shaft. As he is swinging back and forth to try to reach the lever, a doorman enters the building to make his rounds and drops his keys in the dark. The doorman then turns on the main electrical switch which causes the elevator to move down in the shaft and if continued would crush and kill Mr. Tavernier. Fortunately for Julien the switch is turned back off and the elevator stops before he is flattened. The notes that Davis plays are building up, increasing in volume and intensity until they are silenced when the electrical circuit is shut off. Both the camera and the expression of Mr. Tavernier develop the feeling of relief, but the trumpet notes and the quick cessation of sound elevate the lasting impression as Julien hangs in the elevator shaft in silence.
In the clip below another example of the emotional expression that the music enhances. In Madame Carala's search for Julien she enters a bar. The piano played sounds as if it were from a man inside the bar, but as she steps out onto the street the lightning crashes and the full band picks up from the brief pause left by the delicate solo piano. This is not the first time that the lightning has cued the steady building sound of dark suspense; together the stormy rain sounds and slow rolling jazz music makes for an informative view on Madame Carala's psyche where there would otherwise be no dialogue to inform a viewer of her emotions.
It is clear that the moment would be riveting with or without the music accompanying the video, however the coordinated events of both media create an intense suspense that elevates the experience for the viewer in two sensory areas at once. It is unique to have such a harmonious collaboration between two artists of different mediums and distinct identities in their respective fields. The simple approach in Elevator to the Gallows eases the translatability of each artist’s art form with black and white film and one-track live analog recordings. The even palate is comfortable to both the listener and the viewer. Together the experience of the film can be exhilarating. To know how the shots were taken or what the musicians are actually playing may provide a different perspective on the collaboration between Malle and Davis, but a viewer does not need be a film maker or jazz musician to enjoy their work.
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Chanbers, Jack. Milestones: The Music and Times of Miles Davis. New York: Quill William Morrow, 1985.
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Troupe, Quincy. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Kahn, Ashley. Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000.