Illustration courtesy of the artist, Jung Hu Lee.

Miles Davis’s Corporeal Score to Louis Malle’s ‘Elevator to the Gallows’

Davis's score doesn't articulate a narrative in this film; it provides a haunting, corporeal presence that refuses to assimilate to our efforts to find meaning.

Whether one considers it the precursor to or one of the first instances of the French New Wave, Louis Malle’s first film, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, 1958) is a remarkable achievement. Elevator is perched precariously between the emergence of the New Wave (most clearly in the scenes discussed below, featuring Jeanne Moreau’s character Florence Carala wandering the streets) and its attempt to rigorously suit the genre expectations of film noir while declaring its indebtedness to Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson. But one of the most striking elements of the film, and one that only came about through a relatively offhand decision, is the improvised score provided by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

Malle’s assistant, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, was an ardent jazz buff and suggested that Malle have Davis record the soundtrack. Davis was scheduled to perform at the Club Saint-Germaine in November of 1957 and thus would be in Paris during post-production. The jazz artist was given a private screening of the film. He apparently worked out some sparse harmonic sketches in his hotel room and this was the only material he brought with him to the recording session. No themes, no parts, no lead sheets (aside from the simple alternations of chords).

In early December, Davis assembled a group featuring French jazz session musicians (Barney Wilen on tenor saxophone, René Urtreger on piano, and Pierre Michelot on bass) along with expatriate drummer Kenny Clarke at Le Poste Parisien Studio. The sequences of the film needing underscoring were projected in front of the band and they improvised music to the scenes based on the harmonic outlines Davis provided.

The resulting music contrasts significantly, if not drastically, from the material Davis had been developing up to that point; that is, the more harmonically and timbrally complex work in the “cool” style heard on The Birth of the Cool (recorded in 1949 and 1950 but not released until 1957) and the aggressive and sometimes standards-based hard bop approach deriving from the 1951 and 1954 sessions that eventually got released on albums such as Bag’s Groove (1957). In its stripped-down, almost reductive approach to harmony, the Elevator soundtrack anticipates the modal jazz Davis would soon inaugurate on the albums Milestones (1958) and, most famously, Kind of Blue (1959).

Modal jazz, simply put, limits the harmonic movement and, in some cases, freezes that movement almost altogether — “So What” from Kind of Blue employs only two harmonies that are really the same harmony a half step apart. When the harmony is stultified in this manner, the focus naturally devolves onto the melodic improvisations of the soloist.

The soloist in the bop, cool, or hard bop traditions of jazz feels at least some obligation to “outline the changes”; that is, to improvise in such a manner that clearly articulates the underlying harmonies of the tune. Listeners feel as though the soloist is “locked into” the harmonic basis of the music insofar as that improviser plays melodic lines that accentuate the harmonic goals of the chord progression. I have termed this an obligation, but it’s also gift bestowed by the music. When an improviser has a clear and interesting chord progression, the choices of what to do with that progression may appear more self-evident.

We learn, as jazz performers, how to outline the changes in, one hopes, intriguing ways. Modal jazz doesn’t offer the benefit of a rich underlying harmonic progression (indeed modal jazz can, at first, seem harmonically stagnant or even tedious for those steeped in the traditions of jazz). The soloist is forced to think about the melody over a relative harmonic stasis. What to do next is not nearly as self-evident.

There’s another consequence to the stagnancy of harmony in modal jazz that’s worth pursuing in conjunction with the Elevator to the Gallows. Modal jazz projects the personality of the performing soloist into the foreground in a remarkably exposed fashion. At first glance this seems like overstatement. Ever since Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong (at least) the personality of the improviser has been an indelible aspect of jazz. This is incontrovertible. In the hands of Miles Davis, however, modal jazz emphasizes the individual peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the improviser in an exposed manner that outstrips earlier approaches to jazz. If Armstrong balances the specificities of his musical personality with the generalities of standard harmonic progressions, modal Miles puts the spotlight glaringly on personality by removing all but the vestiges of harmonic interest. And this brings the “body” in this music to the forefront. That last leap requires a little justification.

Roland Barthes, in his essay “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills” (translated by Stephen Heath in the collection Image Music Text, Fontana Press, 1977), postulates three levels of meaning: the informational, the symbolic, and the level of significance. In Barthes’ example, a still from Ivan the Terrible where two courtiers pour gold over their ruler, the informational is conveyed by the scene as such (the courtiers pour gold over Ivan at this moment in the narrative), while the symbolic involves all of the various things this act can represent on metaphorical, historical, and diegetic levels. So the informational level provides content (what happens, what this thing is) while the symbolic level provides signification (what this all means in an interpretive sense).

However, Barthes postulates, there’s something more, something harder to define, that resides at the third level. He defines this thing as something obstinate and obtuse. It impedes upon the interpreter but cannot be paraphrased or simply accounted for in language and it provides the recipient with jouissance, quasi-sexual, perhaps transgressive, form of enjoyment.

In his essay, “The Grain of the Voice” (translated in the same collection), Barthes connects this significance to the “body in the voice”; that is, to all of those sounds that emerge from the body in singing that are not, strictly speaking, part of the significance of the production of song. He refers to those instances when we hear “the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose” (p. 183). Signifiance here becomes the “materiality of the body speaking” (p. 182).

Scholars using Barthes’s concept of the “grain of the voice” often reduce it to a kind of expressive use of timbre — this even though Barthes explicitly denies that “grain” is merely texture (p. 185) and the fact that Barthes declares expressivity to be on the side of signification, not signfiance (p. 183). I’m sure I’m not alone in finding most of Barthes to be rather vague — suggestive but generally resistant to application beyond his own ruminations. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that there is some insight to be had here in the “grain” with respect to Miles Davis in relation to this film.

In consideration of the three levels, notice that the reduction of harmonic material focuses the informational level on to a fairly restricted content. For most of the underscoring we hear that exposed, fragile sound of Davis’s trumpet with only a minimal contribution from the backing band. In the sections of the music actually employed in the film, Wilen’s saxophone barely appears, and the sparse accompaniment only serves to push the trumpet’s lost melancholy further forward. The informational level is therefore highly concentrated: the notes and figures of the trumpet, many of them repeated, wandering aimlessly over the scant harmonic and rhythmic fabric set forth by the accompanists.

The symbolic level, not surprisingly in a film noir, is exceedingly rich. The minimal, lugubrious approach to much of the music connotes the misery the main characters feel in their isolation while the jazz sound itself symbolizes the cold modernity, tinged with melancholy on which noir relies. The third level, the signifiance, is of course far more elusive and demands a closer look at some scenes from the film.

Briefly, the narrative of Elevator to the Gallows involves the illicit lovers Florence and Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) in their plot to murder Florence’s husband. The killing itself comes off rather well, with Julien convincingly staging the scene as a suicide, but from that point a series of coincidences and strokes of bad luck conspire to bring the couple to justice, beginning with Julien getting trapped in an elevator for the weekend. This means that the two protagonists, the couple so deeply in love they are resolved to commit homicide to be together, spend no time in each other’s company during the film. The only exception (and even then they are not physically together) is the phone call that opens the story, the phone call during which Florence spurs Julien on toward the deed.

In this opening scene, the lovers exchange poetically charged platitudes. Julien declares “Without your voice I’d be lost in a land of silence,” to which Florence cajoles: “That’s not very courageous.” Julien insists that love itself is not courageous and Florence, understandably given what Julien is supposed to do, tells him not to say such a thing. They continue to talk, we assume employing the same banalities, the same blandishments, but we can no longer hear their voices. Instead, the first tune emerges on the soundtrack and our aural attention shifts to the lamenting insistence of Davis’s trumpet.

This is a pivotal move. The voices of the protagonists are cut off and we are left with the plaintive but, in some ways, inarticulate utterances of the trumpet — “inarticulate” insofar as this music doesn’t “go” anywhere, it doesn’t so much say something as it ruminates, it inhabits space, it builds a bodily presence. For most of the film, these two characters will say very little. Julien will be trapped in an elevator and Florence will wander throughout the city in a futile search for her lover. These figures become themselves inarticulate bodies — and it’s this, this concentration on the filmic possibilities of the body outside of the articulation of narrative as such, more than anything else, that makes this film so innovative and so essential.

The opening number features only one notable, blink-and-you-miss-it, harmonic shift. The remainder of the track is founded on a simple alternation of harmonies that really reduces to a kind of harmonic drone. Davis plays with his approach to the instrument in a calculatedly off-hand manner. Several of the notes are just slightly flat and not merely in the manner of “blue” notes. This is mostly clearly demonstrated in Davis’s many returns to a basic motive that he doesn’t so much develop as obsess over. In one instance, he plays the motive at a relatively loud volume and perfectly in tune, and then immediately follows that with a softer and slightly flat iteration.

Notice the way in which notes begin and end. Davis sometimes provides too much or too little pressure on them. He’s not saying something so much as he is contemplating aloud. Now these variations in tone production can be found in nearly any performance of music (not just in jazz, and certainly not just in Davis’s modal output) but the scant harmonic support of Davis’s approach here highlights these bodily irruptions of the music in a way that not only foregrounds them but also connects them to the corporeal emphasis of the film itself.

If the level of signifiance involves the obtuse within materiality, then Elevator to the Gallows offers an ideal meditation on the intractable nature of the body. Bodies in this film are unassuaged impediments, hindering progress. They are the machines through which the characters attempt to accomplish their goals and yet they constantly obtrude upon the smooth execution of their plans. Witness Julien’s body in the elevator: trapped and useless, his body is an obstacle and a constant source of danger. Davis’s score reflects the recalcitrance of Julien’s corporeality.

As Julien attempts to effect his escape, Davis performs a succession of disjointed two-note figures through a Harmon mute. The figures seem to connote the implacable nature of Fate, the impossibility of escape for Julien. Yet this hardly says enough. The signification of the moment (what it purports to mean) seems almost beside the point. Again, the emphasis here is on the bodily sound of the instrument. This is not interesting music, in the traditional sense; it’s evocative, perhaps, but its evocation depends on its obstructive corporeality — this is music of the resistant body in all its obstinacy; it obtrudes and thrusts forward its Sphinx-like inscrutability. Refusing to interpret, it impedes interpretation.

Even more compelling is Malle’s treatment of Florence’s body. Flouting convention, Malle employs natural light throughout the film. Given its nocturnal setting, the film thus provides Moreau (as Florence) with a glaring and harsh rendering of her facial features. The lighting articulates the hard, implacable objecthood of Florence’s body. She moves through the city with a march-like insistence; completely oblivious to the dangers of traffic, she steps incautiously into traffic, forcing cars to screech to a halt in an effort not to run her aground while she remains utterly indifferent. There’s something mechanical and alluring all at once in her gait and this is rendered audible in a mesmerizing fashion by Davis, who sets her meanderings to a gently propulsive melodic improvisation that ultimately goes nowhere.

At any given moment, the music feels as though it might have a goal but one never materializes. Only the bodily presence of that trumpet sound emerges; the long tones, the breaks in the higher notes all call attention to the unstrained but persistent exertions of a seemingly detached corporeality. The film and its soundtrack do not employ the movements of the body to further plot but rather use the plot as a nearly disposable excuse to ruminate on the insistence and resistance of the body.

In closing let us focus on one more fascinating aspect of the soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows, one that probably derived from Malle’s conception rather than Davis’s. Throughout the film, Malle obscures the line between diegetic and extra-diegetic music (that is, between music that we know is heard by the characters in the film and music that we hear but that the characters do not). When a young couple steals Julien’s car, Davis’s group performs up-tempo, percussion-heavy “get-away” music that perfectly encapsulates the moment. Moreover, it’s recognizably in the same vein and by the same band as the clearly non-diegetic music we heard in the opening phone scene.

But then the young woman reaches for the radio to reduce the volume so she can be more easily heard, the soundtrack at this moment being what is ostensibly broadcast by the radio (hence diegetic). As Florence moves through the city, she at times seems to react to music (shaking her head in a peculiar way) that we know she cannot actually be hearing; at other times she moves into a café where we assume the music is diegetic only to have it cut off in an abrupt and peculiar fashion to accommodate the dialogue.

This is another way, perhaps the most obvious way, in which Davis’s soundtrack manifests a strange materiality that is akin to Barthes’s level of signifiance and that resists interpretation, resists signification. The music does not simply exist as some external commentary on the action (as is generally the case with non-diegetic music), nor does it serve as a mere part of the atmosphere (as is often the case with diegetic music). It’s part of the fabric, the warp and woof, of the film itself., a signifier lacking a signified It’s not merely operating on an informational or symbolic level but, more importantly, it’s doing something else; it’s performing otherwise in a manner that is difficult if not impossible to articulate.

The music is another recalcitrant body that moves in this film while going nowhere. Davis’s soundtrack to Elevator to the Gallows does not interpret the film on our behalf but rather, like the obtrusive bodies that populate Malle’s vision, it provides a haunting corporeal presence that refuses to assimilate to our efforts to find meaning.

Jeanne Moreau and Miles Davis during the recording of the film music for Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows on 5 December 1957. Photo by Vincent Rossell.

The Film Forum in New York City will be showing Elevator to the Gallows from the 3rd through 11th of August.