He chose an overlooked noir novel about a man who kills his lover's husband, only to be trapped in the elevator while fleeing. His car is stolen, complications mount. In the meantime, we wait to see if he will get free before the police arrive.
Malle co-authored a clever, stylish script. He gave the film an ironic title: “Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud”, or “Frantic”, or “Elevator to the Gallows”. As the lover, he hired Jeanne Moreau, a successful but not incendiary stage actress. In addition, as his cinematographer, he chose the young innovator, Henri Decae.
Then this first-time director got Miles Davis to improvise and record the soundtrack.
Davis had revolutionized jazz once already. Now he was turning away from hard-charging bursts of sound to a cooler style that would change American jazz once again.
What did he see in Louis Malle?
“I was in Paris to play as a guest soloist for a few weeks,” Davis later explained. “I met Louis through Juliette Greco. He told me he had always loved my music. I agreed to write the musical score for his film because it was a great learning experience. I had never written a music score for a film before.”
Davis did not really “write” this one, either. Oh, he said he “looked at the rushes of the film and got musical ideas to write down.” However, his real genius was in hiring the great American jazz drummer Kenny Clarke and three French musicians and putting them in an environment that mirrored the mood of the movie. As Davis recalled: “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.”
The track was recorded in a single, champagne-fueled session as Moreau and Malle sat and looked on. At one point, a bit of Davis's lip blew into his mouthpiece; he pressed on. There were repeated takes of certain ideas; a number of tracks on the soundtrack are variations of earlier cuts. No matter. This is one of the greatest jazz soundtracks in film, some say the greatest. The trumpet could not be more evocative. Mostly slow and breathy, thoughtful and tender, lonely and okay about it. In a word, cool.
There is much to like about the film. It used Paris like nothing before. Malle presaged the New Wave. The final shot, made with a cameraman in a wheelchair. It allowed filmmakers to shoot at night without massive equipment. The film made Jeanne Moreau a star, and it launched Louis Malle's brilliant career.
The irony of the Malle-Davis collaboration is that Malle never explored noir again. Indeed, he made it a point to direct only one movie per genre. But, the ideas of composition that Davis was working out in this movie soundtrack would come to full bloom a few years later in his classic "Kind of Blue" with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, and Bill Evans.
The soundtrack, mesmerizing and evocative then, is just as enticing today. It is a deep experience for the jazz fan. If you are shallow like me, and like your music without lyrics at dinner, get the CD, and be as cool as Miles.