Saturday, August 27, 2016

Elevator to the Gallows and jazz in movies: What a little soundtrack can do

"Elevator to the Gallows" poster, photo by Peter
Rozovsky for Detectives Beyond Borders
Louis Malle's first feature film, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud), released in 1958, has to be one of the better mixes of noir substance and stylish noir trappings ever.

In the realm of style, there are night scenes, rain, Jeanne Moreau walking the streets of Paris on a fruitless quest, and a roadside motel (charmingly explained and defined by one character for another, presumably for the benefit of mid-century French audiences unfamiliar with the phenomenon of motels), and a score by Miles Davis.

In the realm of gut-clenching noir substance, there are misunderstandings that push people over the edge, doomed runaway lovers, low-life thieves, and characters whose alibis for crimes of which they are falsely accused put them squarely in the fame for crimes they committed.  (Bits of the movie may remind Dashiell Hammett fans of "The Golden Horseshoe.") Elevator to the Gallows is one of the rare films noirs I have seen that I thought would make a good book. (It is in fact based on a novel by Noël Calef, otherwise unknown to me.)

In re stylish noir trappings, the score and Malle's use of it especially impressive. Miles Davis wrote the music, played by a five-piece band that included Davis and drummer Kenny Clarke, so you know the soundtrack was bound to be good. Cool jazz, just because it is cool and understated, makes a nice, ironic counterpoint to moments of high tension on the screen.    The long stretches without music, in which the only sounds are dialogue and ambient noise, compel attention to the action. And when the music comes in, it trusts the viewer to experience the story without any sonic nonsense such as furious pounding on the cymbals to let the viewer know he or she is supposed to feel tension.

(Hear Miles Davis play and Louis Malle discuss (in French) the soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows.  And here's a list of the twenty best jazz soundtracks in movie history. The list ranks Elevator to the Gallows fourth.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2016

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

8 Comments:

Blogger Art Taylor said...

Great post. This is a fascinating film, and the soundtrack is a great part of the success--for the reasons you zero in on. Appreciate you calling attention to it!

August 28, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And it was nice to see it on a big screen, too. Thanks.

I'd been listening to Terrence Blanchard's "Jazz in Film" album, and the theme from "The Man With the Golden Arm" is great stuff, but much more obviously keyed to the narrative than Miles Davis' cool cool in "Elevator to the Gallows."

August 28, 2016  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

I saw this movie a few years ago, I saw it because of the French movie/Miles Davis connection. I remember the soundtrack much more than the plot line- funny enough.

BTW, Peter, I've been curious about how one would find "famous" mystery fans. I know Wittgenstein, Xenakis (the composer, & TS Eliot were readers of mystery novels, just by chance findings, but I was wondering if you knew of a listing, or a book or ??? I think it is fascinating of that type of people mystery novels attract.

August 30, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read about famous readers of crime ficion from time to time, too, but I know of no list or compilation.

Had you read or seen lots of noir at the time when you saw the movie?

August 30, 2016  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

HI Peter, I had seen a number of noir before the Malle film. Remembering film plots is not my strength, I usually need a nudge to remember, unless the film was so strange, or a film I've watched a few times. Memory of film is a strange exercise- I thought I remembered a scene rather vividly in the movie Andrei Rublev, and when I saw it again after 20 some years, that scene did not exist!

Anyway, I've been on a slight Japanese noir kick recently and have seen three and hope to see more.

August 31, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Noir plots tend to be complicated, and one is apt to recall feelings and impressions rather than plot details, I think.

What Japanese noir have you seen or read?

August 31, 2016  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

Japanese Noir: Stray Dog, High & Low, and Cruel Gun Story. Of course the Kurosawa films are great, but I liked CGS for its weird, stuff guy vibe. I actually am finding post WWII Japan very fascinating as it is a culture in transition and has embraced Western style so robustly. It's kind of weird. I noted that you had mentioned Inspector Imanishi Investigates- I have read this and wish there were a whole series of this investigator- I really enjoyed reading his thought process as well as the details of his day to day life- what he eats, who he thinks while smoking, how her interacts with his assistant, etc.

August 31, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've seen the Kurosawa movies and likes the both, especially Stray Dog, which has its own trek through postwar Japan search of the missing gun. I've also seen The Bad Sleep Well. Do you know it?

I've read a couple of Seicho Matsumoto's books in addition to Inspector Imanishi Investigates. I especially liked Points and Lines.

September 01, 2016  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home