Louis Armstrong once said, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
He wasn’t talking about that new squirt on the block, Miles Davis, he was talking about the whole thing called jazz.
With the first white-hot note––a series of squeezed-out, throttled, high-pressure, steam-bursting trumpet notes of pain and purity behind the first frames of “Ascenseur pour l’echafaud” (“Elevator to the Gallows”), you are already properly pointed the way through the ensuing 91 minutes of Louis Malle’s first, shockingly alive, full-length motion picture.
Wandering with you the whole night long through the streets of Paris—to the sounds of Davis, the devil’s own music—is Jeanne Moreau, in search of a man, her lover, who unbeknownst to her is trapped in an elevator, six or eight stories up in the apartment building where, as she wished, he has just murdered her husband.
She sees the lover’s car drive away, and thinks he’s two-timing her with the young chick Moreau has glimpsed on the front seat, but it wasn’t Mo-reau’s lover at the wheel of the car, it was the chick’s tinhorn, daredevil boyfriend who has stolen the snazzy vehicle and these two teenagers will stumble idiotically into a double shooting that wipes out the first murder––almost.
Those opening banshee notes of Davis the magician punctuate and drive the whole crackling irony. Davis and a pickup combo. Free-lancing.
Louis Malle was 24 when he wrote (with Roger Nimier) and directed this 1957 thriller, which, thanks to the restoration and re-issue of “Elevator” by Bruce Goldstein’s Rialto Pictures, on Friday, at the Walter Reade Theater, opens the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s long-in-the-making, 26-day, nearly complete retrospective of the cinema of Louis Malle.
Miles Davis was 31 and happened to be on a club date in Paris in 1957.
“I was crazy about jazz,” Malle has said of that moment––and would prove his love of jazz again, a decade and a half after “Elevator,” with his 1971 “Murmur of the Heart” (“Le soufflé au coeur”), in which, in the bleak Dien Bien Phu year of 1954, a gawky 15-year-old Parisian kid named Laurent is nuts about Charlie Parker while we hear Bird and Becket scatting on the soundtrack.
In addition to its Walter Reade Theater screenings, Louis Malle’s “Ascenseur pour l’echafaud” (“Elevator to the Gallows,”) opens on Jun. 24 at Landmark Sunshine Cinema.