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Daily Dose of Darkness #28: Pure Score (Opening Scene of Elevators to the Gallows)


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To be honest, I was somewhat confused by the introduction to today's Daily Dose. It seems to say the "Elevator to the Gallows" does not count as film noir simply because it was not made in America (or perhaps I'm misreading it). I have a reasonably narrow definition of film noir myself, but specific nationality of the film is not one of the requirements.

 

As to jazz and noir, I think they tie together for two primary reasons. First, jazz seems to be the music of mid-century urban America, which is the prototypical (but not only) noir setting. Second, the minor keys of jazz provide a melancholy feel which matches noir's interest in the dark influence of fate.

 

In many of the films we've seen to date with a jazz score, that score was more swinging and edgy, driving the plot forward almost immediately. Here, Miles Davis' score is more laid back and sensual. It serves to emphasize the attraction that draws these people together, and makes it palpable for us. It seems like they're going to do something they shouldn't, but their sexuality won't let them stop, and the music helps us understand that.

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Few opening scenes have gotten us as up close and personal with the characters, and damn that Miles Davis - the score is haunting, sexy, and cool as can be all at once. I also like the nice juxtaposition of starting in so uncomfortably close but then pulling out to an extremely wide shot during the credits, like the camera is giving us a quick break to grasp our setting before we just right back into the action.

 

The film is immediately noticeable as a late fifties (1957) entry in the noir canon, as evidenced by the crisp black and white and flat television format. And to be blunt, I'm not too intrigued in this opener besides the Davis soundtrack. I get a smooth and cool noir facade, but there isn't much that gives off that gut feeling that the best of them have. I don't know, maybe its because I'm not a huge fan of this movie in general, but I'm getting a French impression as opposed to the real McCoy.

 

Danilo

www.filmnoirarchive.com

 

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The score is wistful & haunting, especially as they shot widens out from the closeup to the man. It seems to foreshadow that something is going to happen to this two lovers. Jazz scores has help set the tone to noir and, so early in this film, sets the feeling for what is going on and what will happen.

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Perhaps above all other forms of music, jazz seems to communicate the feelings of joy, loneliness, despair, etc., with the most clarity in films noir. They were born and grew up in approximately the same time. This could be why they seem to dovetail so well.

 

In this scene, the score made me feel lonely, as if it were a tangible ache. Haunting music, too,

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     In this scene from "Elevator to the Gallows", Miles Davis' heart wrenching trumpet solo enhances the couple's erotic conversation as well as exposing the desperation each one is experiencing at the other end of the phone line. He is alone in a enormous glass enclosed building and she is in a glass phone booth. Both of them are transparent in their criminal intentions and sexual needs. In this film, the music serves as another translator or subtitle; it gives substantial meaning to the plot.Moreau is phenomenally sensual as she embraces the phone and seduces her lover from a distance.

     Jazz music is part of film noir because it helps to convey the emotional heft (love that expression) found in film noir. It speaks to the desolation, melancholy,desperation, sexuality,anxiety, fear despair and scorn. Whew!!

     Thank you Professor Edwards, and all of the film noir fans. I've enjoyed reading your  intense comments and learning from them.  Sonia Fuentes

    P.S. There's a great example of the fifties mambo music in one of our film noir classics "Criss Cross". It's a great  scene with Yvonne De Carlo finding her Latin music groove with the Essy Morales Orchestra.

 

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The Miles Davis trumpet underscores the singular nature of our protagonists. Both the man and the woman are presented as individuals without context and a tentative, surrogate connection via the telephone. Their intimacy is artifice: you can't kiss someone with a big phonebox in the way. The camera pulls back on the man to reveal him as the only occupant of a large angular building with a wall of empty windows: you can look in but nothing is there. The music enhances this lonely singularity.

I love this era of Miles Davis; straight ahead and be-bop are my favorite jazz forms. This movie is significantly enhanced by this particular musical score. 

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Louis Malle’s Elevator To The Gallows feels closer to a movie from the 1960’s than the 1940’s.  Part of this is Miles Davis’s score, which establishes the mood between Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet.  Part of it is also the camera work, especially the extreme close-up on Moreau and the use of zoom lenses to zoom out from the subject.  Excuse my English but this clip from Elevator To The Gallows is a whole nother beast.

 

What’s different about Davis’s music is I feel like I’m listening to Davis’s music while I’m watching a movie.  That’s fine and it makes the film feel more modern but I think at its core Malle’s use of Davis’s score departs from the Hollywood tradition (if it’s possible for a French director to depart from Hollywood) of using classical music motifs to accompany the shifting beats of the scene.  For those interested, there’s a decent documentary about Hollywood film scoring called, “The Hollywood Sound.”

 

Personally, I don’t associate jazz with film noir that much.  Yes, there are scenes that take place in jazz clubs.  Phantom Lady and D.O.A. come to mind.  Jazz in these scenes often serves not so much as music but to heighten a frenetic or overbearing scenario that’s foreign to the protagonist.  As Msmukmuk mentioned earlier, one could make a good case that mambo (or rhumba or samba?) music are also represented in film noir - the club scene in Criss Cross.  Jazz and film noir holding hands sounds good.  Late night, adult stuff.  I just wonder if it’s anything more than just wishful thinking.

 

-Mark

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The Miles Davis' score in the film noir, Elevator To The Gallows (1958) via the wailing and crying of the horn to add tension and an intensity or 'heightened' passion to the already passionate scene between the lovers Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet) who are emoting to each other on the telephone.  Louis Malle's stark and bleak visual design consisting mostly of grays with some black and white is made starker and bleaker by Miles Davis' wailing horn and adds a feeling of loneliness bordering on despair.

 

The "idioms of jazz" resonate very well with the style and substance of film noir because it could create an added layer to, or, intensify the feelings of what is portrayed in the scene such as isolation, vulnerability, or, depravity.  It could also be another element or 'character' in the scene but, speaks in musical notes.  Since the style and substance of film noirs usually leads to doom and destruction, the unconventionality of the "idioms of jazz" would aid in achieving this effect very well.

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I was hooked right away while watching this clip from "Elevator to the Gallows," weren't you?  I wasn't planning on watching it, and now I can hardly wait!  Such seductive music to pull us in!  Such a feeling of longing was evoked by not only the characters' dialogue, but the music, as well. First, the close-up shot producing such a feeling of intimacy, and then the camera pulls away, and such emptiness! I couldn't help feeling what they were feeling.  And then, BAM!  Such a feeling of dread. Music has such a way of speaking to us on a much deeper level than mere words.  Most of us watch movies to feel something, and in this short clip, all the elements combined to deliver a powerful punch.  A perfect pairing of music and film noir!

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There are some great Neo Noirs that embrace the power of a great score. If you liked this check out the Dave Brubeck ish West Coast Jazz score for The Last Seduction (1993) by Joseph Vitarelli or a score very similar to Elevator To The Gallows in Body Heat (1981) by John Barry or for Romeo Is Bleeding (1993) by Mark Isham. 

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Miles Davis' score is hot, edgy, tense and soulful yet has elements of despair and lonliness peeking through. The extreme close-up of Jeanne Moreau with the score playing in the backdrop creates a sexy and dangerous air. She whispers "I love you" and pulls her lover in deeper into the moment almost hypnotizing him so that the "plan" can be carried out with freedom only 30 minutes away. Louis Malle's sterile, weightless environment - long shot of the empty building with just the lover and the sparse office -  plays opposite the heavy, steamy dialogue and musical score. And in a metaphorical way, a thin telephone cord is tethering these two characters together but can it survive their weight?

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Here are a few discussion starters (though feel free to come up with your own):

 

-- In what ways does Miles Davis' score (improvised while watching scenes from the movie) work with and contribute additional layers of meaning to Louis Malle's visual design?

 

Unlike classical music, which never deviates, jazz is best when improvised and this improvisation adds or creates more depth within scenes in the movie. This means that it is ever changing and lends itself to interpretation and a sense of unknowing.

 

-- Going back to our original discussions of jazz on the film noir style, what is it about the "idioms of jazz" that resonate so well with the style and substance of film noir?

 

As stated, it does not follow traditional patterns just like film noir. They go hand in hand and in many ways, jazz add the depth that made film noir successful.

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Elevator To The Gallows (1958) This film score is "one reason why we equate jazz scores with the noir phenomenon" and I can see why. I rewatched this scene without the sound and tried to imagine it without the Miles Davis' score. It felt completely different. The score added a layer of sensuality, intrigue, and a sense of the forbidden to the film. I wanted to keep watching and the music manipulated that but in a way that I didn't feel manipulated. :)

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I could hardly watch the film when the music started because I wanted to close my eyes and feel it.  Jazz can take you there. It can be jagged, fast pasted, organized chaos that touches your soul. That is why it is such a beautiful complement to noir. These movies go right to the root of human nature. Whatever the character is feeling there is a complement to it in the world of Jazz.

The slow jazz trumpet playing went so well with the loneliness of one man standing in a window of many when the phone goes dead on the other end.

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Perhaps above all other forms of music, jazz seems to communicate the feelings of joy, loneliness, despair, etc., with the most clarity in films noir. They were born and grew up in approximately the same time. This could be why they seem to dovetail so well.

 

In this scene, the score made me feel lonely, as if it were a tangible ache. Haunting music, too,

I felt that pang, too. It was a pang of loneliness and aching to be with that person you love. Jazz is such a great communicator of that feeling, and I think the major reason for that is because it embraces improvisation. You can "go" whichever way you're feeling with the song. If you're feeling that aching pang, you go with it. If you're feeling happy, you go with it. You don't have the same rigidness you do with other genres of music, especially with the scores we've heard in the other Daily Doses. 

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I think it's significant that shortly after he says, "without your voice, I'd be lost in a land of silence", their conversation fades away into silence and we can't hear what they're saying anymore, only the jazz intro. And wow! We start with a SUPER close-up of the woman's face, only to keep pulling back to the exterior of the building, interesting technique.

 

And any time anyone in a film noir says something like "we have to (fill in the blank--murder, embezzle, steal, etc)--because then we'll be free", you just KNOW things aren't going to work out. There's this dark twisted irony that the characters think committing a crime will lead to freedom, only it leads to their own doom and destruction.

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Unfortunately, I did not get to either clubs. If I could have been a fly on the wall at the Baked Potato, though! Those clubs were just getting underway when I graduated college, went to work and started a family so my priorities changed. I do have one question that you might be able to answer: I remember an artist by the name of Lightnin' Hopkins. Was he a jazz or blues musician? I think he may have crossed over to one or the other. I know this is off topic, sorry.

 

Ligntnin' Hopkins was a blues musician.   What is sad is that even in So Cal there are not half as many jazz clubs as there were in the 80s and 90s especially in the OC.     

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Ligntnin' Hopkins was a blues musician.   What is sad is that even in So Cal there are not half as many jazz clubs as there were in the 80s and 90s especially in the OC.     

So true about the jazz clubs. Thank you for your info on Hopkins. Years ago I had picked up an album of his from an old Wax Trax record store after which there was much discussion as to his slot in jazz or blues. Best.....to you on the day.

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I like knowing that Miles Davis and his players improvised the score while watching the scenes. They add the layer of their emotions expressed in their music. We have a multi-layered shared emotional experience with both the characters and the musicians.

Musicians have a long history of improvising to film: that's what they did for silent films every time they were shown to an audience. I've seen some silent films with musical accompaniment provided and it's an amazing, fun experience. It seems to encourage audience participation in a way that's almost inexplicable. Audience members feel free to laugh, talk--in short, react--to what they see on the screen. I enjoyed the silent films immensely when they were presented as they were originally intended.

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In what ways does Miles Davis' score (improvised while watching scenes from the movie) work with and contribute additional layers of meaning to Louis Malle's visual design?

 

I think Miles Davis’ score adds a depth of expressionism and realness to the scene.

 

Going back to our original discussions of jazz on the film noir style, what is it about the "idioms of jazz" that resonate so well with the style and substance of film noir?

 

I believe that Jazz resonates so well with the style and substance of film noir because of the same reason that listed above. I feel that Jazz adds another layer of complexity and meaning to film noir.

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I thought the scene was beautiful in its apparent bleakness and melancholy; and the jazz score adds to that with that somber trumpet. There is an unequivocal sense of dread looming over them, which goes in hand with noir.

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Jazz music is a very emotional and descriptive style with many changes of mood and shading, which is why it works so well in noir, which also has moody changes. In this scene from "Elevator to the Gallows" the sound of Miles Davis trumpet makes one feel the loneliness, isolation and longing of the two individuals. The music sets a languid pace and creates a mood of foreboding. Likewise the director begins with a shot of just the eyes of the woman, and very gradually allows us to see a little more, then we see the man with whom she is conversing on the telephone. Eventually we see an exterior of the entire building and he appears as a lone occupant, isolated and separated from his lover, and this is all stated beautifully by the improvised jazz music. Even without subtitles the score would tell us "the score". Both Jazz and film noir are products of the American Experience- two truly American art forms which came of age in the early twentieth century, making them perfect partners.

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While most music is written to be performed this jazz is improvised and thereby "delivers" to the content, the expressions, in the film and when it does this best it enhances the emotions and moods experienced. By adding this emotional layers to the film it it can support some of the core themes of the noir, loneliness, tension, doom.

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