A new restoration of Louis Malle’s “Elevator to the Gallows” (1957), a seminal work of French Film Noir, starring Jeanne Moreau and featuring a legendary jazz score by Miles Davis, will run at Film Forum in New York City starting today, Wednesday, August 3 through next week Thursday, August 11.
“Elevator to the Gallows” was the first feature film by then 24-year-old director Malle, only a year after co-directing (with Jacques Cousteau) the Palme d’Or-winning documentary “The Silent World,” and the screen-star-making role for Moreau, after nine years and twenty films. It was also a groundbreaking achievement for cinematographer Henri Decaë.
And just as Malle, an avid jazz fan, was editing Elevator and about to choose a composer, he discovered that his idol, composer/trumpeter Miles Davis was in Paris for a gig at the Café Saint-Germain and engaged him to create the score. Davis and four sidemen (tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen, pianist René Urtreger, bassist Pierre Michelot, and legendary drummer Kenny Clarke) convened in a rented studio for a marathon all-night session (from about ten at night until five the next morning) and, with no preparation or pre-composed theme, improvised in front of the projected movie, creating one of the most celebrated film scores of all time.
The end result is simply a masterpiece. The perfect combination of film and music, creating a sense of mood and place. Davis’ music acts as a sort of commentary about the characters and the tragic, desperate situation that they find themselves caught up in. Jazz critic Jean-Louis Ginibre later wrote in Jazz magazine that Davis had “raised himself to greater heights during the sessions, and became aware of the tragic character of his music which, until then, had been only dimly expressed.”
And believe or not, the soundtrack, for many years, was not released in the U.S. – until the early 1990’s.
Below is a clip of Davis in the studio recording the film’s score, while watching the film on a screen, followed by a brief interview with Malle. It’s in French of course without translation, but one can get a pretty good idea of what he’s saying – that he owes a lot to Davis for helping to make a good film into a great one.
Below that is the trailer for “Elevator to the Gallows,” with Davis’ music, as one can see immediately how perfect it is for the film, evocatively setting mood and tone. It’s one of the greatest examples that I can think of to show how the right music can transform any movie, raising it to a higher level.
And finally, the full soundtrack is available on YouTube, and is embedded below as well. You should listen to it.
For tickets and more information on the film’s newly-restored screening at Film Forum, visit http://filmforum.org/film/elevator-to-the-gallows-film.