Miles Davis was there at “the birth of the cool.” And few film scores are cooler than Miles’ score for Louis Malle’s 1958 French thriller ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS. Lovers Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet) agree to murder her husband and make it look like a suicide. When Julien gets trapped in an elevator trying to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence, Florence searches for him through the rain-swept Paris streets in an attempt to locate him before the police.
Miles broke with film music tradition for Malles’ first feature, composing the first fully improvised score. The score was recorded in one day—Dec. 4, 1957—in multiple takes. Davis’ quintet consisted of Kenny Clarke (drums), Pierre Michelot (bass), René Urtreger (piano) and Barney Wilen (saxophone). Miles gave the other musicians an outline of where the themes were to be played, but, as Urtreger remembered in a 2005 interview, “Nothing was written down.”
Miles was experimenting with a new form of modal jazz, in which the main theme’s slow-moving notes represent the antithesis of the fast-moving bebop that was so popular at the time. But bebop wasn’t totally absent from the score: the Highway Theme is a disguised “Sweet Georgia Brown,” improvised by Davis’ trumpet and Wilen’s saxophone. Further experimentation came during suspense cues, such as the one in which Julien tries to escape from the elevator; Michelot and Clarke improvised the scene on bass and cymbals.
ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS signaled the birth of an exciting new director in Malle and made a star out of the beautiful Moreau, while the on-the-run cinematography through the Paris streets would become a hallmark of the French New Wave. But it is Miles’ music that remains evergreen. “The real glory of the music,” said Urtreger, “is Miles’ sound, his emotion, his talent, with the rest of us playing in the shadows behind him…It’s Miles who shines.” Jazz critic Phil Johnson described the score as “the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep.”