• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

When Miles met the New Wave: Lift to the Scaffold Sixty-Five Years On

ByHector Le Luel

Feb 20, 2023

A lone shadow, trumpet in hand, looms over passing images of Louis Malle’s 1958 debut film Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud). On the screen, a woman wanders in despair through the dimly lit streets of Paris. A series of deep, chilling notes accompany her every step, backed by the faint beating of brushes on a snare drum. As Miles Davis’s trumpet gently echoes throughout the recording studio, it seems like a piece of cinematic history is unfolding. In one night, in complete improvisation, Davis and a quartet of local jazz musicians recorded what could be considered the most stylish film soundtrack ever made. 

The finished piece, however, is arguably more than just a soundtrack. As we follow Florence (Jeanne Moreau) in her despair, whilst her lover Julien (Maurice Ronet) is trapped in an elevator after having killed Florence’s husband (Jean Wall), the music takes a life of its own. Rather than simply accompanying the film, the jazz, at times furiously fast-paced and at others profoundly melancholic, becomes the main protagonist. It seems that Louis Malle – the then twenty-five year old director of the film – envisioned an artistic collaboration rather than a musical supplement. Lift to the Scaffold’s best moments are indeed when the frame is brought to life thanks to Davis and his quartet, who expertly manage to grip the viewer by providing an introspective look into the characters and their troubled mental states. Florence rarely speaks; the viewer only guesses her tortured feelings through Jeanne Moreau’s facial cues. Davis, a viewer himself during the recording session, uses his music to highlight those subtle details. The result is a dialogue between the camera, the actor, and the musician, who all build upon each other to create the tension that makes Lift to the Scaffold so great. 

Miles Davis’s work on the film is a moment of exchange, where the youthful creativity of the French New Wave meets an artist at his musical best. Davis, having already cemented a place in music history and fresh off of a year-long tour of European venues, is perfecting a style, modal jazz, which will crystallize a year later in his masterpiece Kind of Blue. On the other hand, Malle embodies a radical change in cinema; Lift to the Scaffold, a precursor of the later films of Godard, Truffaut, and others, uses outdoor locations, natural lighting and amateur, improvised acting. The whole film radiates a feeling of freedom, detached from indoor studio sets and conventional shooting codes, its improvised nature mirroring the musical improvisation of Davis and his quartet.

The film’s plot, a classic murder mystery inspired by Hollywood’s film noir era, is not groundbreaking in its approach to storytelling in film. Sequences of fast-paced car chases, gruelling detective work and whodunnit plot twists all point to Malle’s admiration of American movies – Davis’s presence, as an American musical celebrity, is no coincidence. However, what Lift to the Scaffold achieves is the creation of a unique atmosphere, intimately linked to Davis’s soundscape. Sixty-five years on, Lift to the Scaffold is a reminder of the power of improvised artistic collaboration. Perhaps no medium is more suited to it than film, and perhaps no film has done it better than Louis Malle and Miles Davis’s Lift to the Scaffold.

Image “Miles Davis Round About Midnight” by Professor Bop is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.