Louis Malle’s 1958 debut feature Lift to the Scaffold offered a number of notable firsts. The director introduced key themes such as duplicity, moral compromise, weakness and fatal attraction that would permeate his work over a subsequent 30-year career. Released under a number of guises, including Elevator to the Gallows, but best known under its original language title of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, it made an iconic star of Jeanne Moreau and featured the first film score composed by Miles Davis.
The film is adapted from a relatively minor roman noir by Noël Calef that was clearly indebted to Double Indemnity; it is also an early example of a European take on film noir with a nocturnal Paris standing in for the mean streets of Los Angeles. Retaining the bare bones of the novel and bringing the marginalised female character to the forefront, Malle and his script writer, the left-wing novelist Roger Nimier, up the existential ante in the tale of a handsome veteran of the Indo-China and Algerian wars, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), and his lover, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), who plan the murder of her husband, an arms manufacturer. Returning from the crime scene, Tavernier becomes trapped in an elevator and Florence is forced to wander the streets of Paris forlornly awaiting their assignation. Any final flickering hopes of escape are extinguished when a teenage couple steal Tavernier’s car and take it on a joyride.
Influenced by Bresson and Hitchcock, Lift to the Scaffold boasts two remarkable achievements alongside its pervasive mood of melancholy, ennui and amour fou. The film is shot in high-contrast black and white by Henri Decaë and is striking to look at, with each frame resembling an intricately designed photograph; Decaë went on to work for Chabrol and Truffaut and became one of the finest cinematographers in European cinema. The other trump card is the aforementioned score by Miles Davis.
Malle was a huge jazz fan and carried a particular torch for the music of Miles Davis. While the director was editing the film in 1957, Miles was visiting Paris to play as a guest soloist for a few weeks at the Club St Germain, and the pair were introduced via Juliette Greco. Malle plucked up the courage to ask Miles to compose a score. Initially reluctant because he was travelling without his usual recording band, Miles was finally convinced after being shown a rough cut of the film and given an explanation of the plot and main characters. As recounted in Malle on Malle, a series of interviews between the director and Philip French, the duo agreed on the moments in the film where music was required, and on a rare night off from his club residency Miles gathered together musicians Barney Wilen (tenor sax), Rene Urtreger (piano), Pierre Michelot (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums). Renting a studio whose foreboding atmospherics matched the dark nature of the film, work continued from 10 at night until five in the morning with all the music, amounting to about 18 minutes in total in the film (a 2003 soundtrack reissue later compiled a further 40 minutes of out-takes), scored directly to screen. This was one of the first film scores recorded this way and improvised in its entirety. Malle found Miles’s efforts transformative, declaring that without the score the film would not have had the critical and public response it enjoyed.
The score is indeed remarkable, often acting as a counterpoint to what we see on screen rather than trying to simply reinforce it. The music is elegiac and detached, while the mood of the film is often one of anticipation and tension, contributing to the poignant sense of doom that shrouds the film from the first image to the very last. The score is particularly effective when we see Moreau’s character prowling the Paris streets at dawn, lending it a sense of abstract emotion. Jack Johnson aside, Miles Davis would go on to produce other feature film soundtracks, perhaps most notably the John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal triple whammy for The Hot Spot, one of those instances where the soundtrack is more memorable than the film it accompanies, but he never came close again to replicating what he did on Lift to the Scaffold.
The film also marked a major turning point in the career of Miles Davis, freeing the trumpeter from the conventional structures of modern jazz. The result was Kind of Blue, widely regarded as the bestselling album in the history of jazz.
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