Saturday, February 2, 2013

TV Bites: Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud)

Miles Davis' South Side Chicago Chili Mack

A version of this post can be found at The Criterion Collection website

Finally we arrive at the long-delayed (also procastinated) second half of the Paris, France double bill. And what a treat it is. With this movie, you get two wonderful things at the same time. First, the movie itself, but also you have one of the most wonderful soundtracks ever created for a film. Miles Davis (no relation to my new kitten) was intrigued to make an improvised recording for the film's soundtrack, but the outcome of that experiment would change not just his musical direction and influence the direction of jazz music in general. (More about this in the Background & Context section.)

And independent of the soundtrack, Elevator to the Gallows changed the cinema landscape, as well. The brilliant cinematography, the editing, the low budget simplicity of it.... The film was released merely moments before the first wave of the French New Wave films came out (though there is a lot of debate as to whether Malle was a member of this group, an honorary member, or not one at all). If Malle is not a card-carrying member of the New Wave (and he himself will argue that he isn't), he nevertheless set the stage for it and busted the doors open so that Truffaut and Goddard could saunter through. Malle's film is the bridge between the French films of the 1950's (Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, and others) and the New Wave.

Otherwise, I hope the new year is doing you well. I just sent the Chef du Cinema book proposal out to an agent. Let's hope for the best. I'll be back shortly with the second half of the "good/bad" double bill.

But let's get to it.... Elevator to the Gallows is available for streaming at Amazon and Hulu, can be purchased direct from the Criterion Collection, and is home rentable from NetFlix.


"You'll see. We won't feel a thing. We'll fall asleep right away. People will talk about us. We'll be an example. The music will keep playing, but we'll already be dead."

Let's start here. In his early 20's, Louis Malle had dropped out of film school in Paris and signed on to work with undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau. The film they made together, The Silent World, took home an Oscar and the Palme D'Or at Cannes. It was 1956 and Malle was 24.

Malle was now interested in getting into feature narrative films. He turned down an offer to be the cinematographer on Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle, but did sign on to work with one of his heroes, Robert Bresson, as an assistant director/research assistant on Bresson's new film A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut). Malle helped with casting, but when the film began shooting, Bresson didn't give him much to do. So bored, he rejoined Cousteau for a short time on his film about the Andrea Doria, but got a severe ear infection which sent him to the hospital. Once recovered, he traveled for a bit and returned to Paris with a script he wanted to direct about two college students' failed love affair which no one was interested in. "They all promptly showed me the door," Malle remembered.

Now 1957, a friend of Malle's gave him the paperback of Elevator to the Gallows written by Noël Calef (though at other times, Malle has said he found the book on his own). "There was something exciting about it, it was a good thriller," he said.

Malle brought the book to Jean Thuillier, who produced Bresson’s A Man Escaped, who said he would produce it if Malle cast Jeanne Moreau as the female lead (though it's not clear to me whose original idea that was).

Several friends and associates were recommending seasoned screenwriters to Malle to adapt the novel, but Malle decided on Roger Nimier, a highly-regarded novelist, who had never worked in film before. "I don't think [Nimier] had a lot to offer in terms of cinema," Malle noted, "since his mindset was very literary. But he had a style, a tone, a way of looking at things, and since I was very young and a virgin, you might say, it was good to have someone of that quality, instead of one of the professional screenwriters others had suggested." And, Malle added, "We worked extremely well together."

However, Malle said, "[W]hen [Nimier] read Elevator he said, 'This book is stupid.' 'Yes,' [I replied,] but the plot is good.' He said 'All right, but let’s start from scratch.'"

And from scratch, they did. "What's funny is that in the novel there's no female lead. [I] created that role from scratch with Roger Nimier," Malle explained. "When you think of it, she is not really necessary to the plot. She just floats around trying to find her lover in Paris."

(NOTE: SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH) "We didn’t want it just to be about the two crimes," he continued elsewhere. "We thought it would be much more interesting if he was supposed to meet a woman immediately after he commits the first murder, she looks for him all over the place, but they never meet.... We hesitated a lot, I remember, while we were working on the screenplay, wondering if we should have them meet at some point. We decided not to, except that at the very end there’s the scene, one of the best in the film, when she’s finally arrested. The photographer is developing the photos and she sees the two of them in love, in the big enlargements in the water, and so they are reunited. But they are never together. For us, that seemed very romantic."

"People often say, 'You discovered Jeanne Moreau,'" Malle has said. "I didn’t - she was already a star then, a B movie star. Also, she was recognized as the prime stage actress of her generation."

As Moreau tells the story, she was performing in a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Nimier and a certain French Prince ("a descendent of the Emperor Napoleon") came to see her backstage to discuss a movie role.

"They didn't want to stay in my dressing room," she recalled, "and they took me to a place, very famous in Paris – where Hemingway used to go – the Harry's Bar. So we went there, we had drinks, and they started to speak to me about a project, a love story where the lovers never meet. And I said, 'But who's the director?' So they said, 'Well, he's just a beginner. He's very young. He's 24 years old. And he made one film.' 'Yes,' I said, 'but what sort of film?' 'Well,' [they said,] 'he made a film with Cousteau and he was filming. He was a diver, and he had slight heart problems.' 'So,' I said, 'Why didn't he come?' 'Well,' [they explained], 'he just wanted to know if you were interested.' So a meeting was organized.

"The producer was there," Moreau continued, "and the Prince told me it would be very low budget, very small crew. And hierarchy was very important before that. I mean, when you were a star you had to have your dresser, you driver, your stand-in, your make-up, your hairdresser. They said, 'Listen, no driver. Maybe somebody to help you get dressed. No make-up.' 'Well,' I said, 'Thank you.' Because it was so heavy – the make-up they used to put on my face was terrible. Because I didn't have the face and the usual looks of the women who were stars at that time. My eyes, my mouth – everything was wrong. So, I had make-up thick – like that. And then suddenly, I was so relieved at the idea that I could do it myself."

Elsewhere, she continued, "[I]t was total freedom: no makeup artist, no hair stylist, being filmed with a bare face, by a handheld camera. I was used to cameramen complaining about how hard I was to film. They'd frame shots so you couldn't see the circles under my eyes or the asymmetry of my face. Through Louis' style of filming I discovered a physical movement as well as an interior freedom. I never told him this, but it's true.... It was a profound change [for me]. I really discovered the depth and beauty of cinema, because my background was in theater. It was a decisive moment for the rest of my life."

But this lack of make-up, combined with the fact that in most of her scenes, especially those of her wandering the streets were shot with only available light, made for some outrage with the folks at the film lab.

"When we started shooting," recalled Malle, "the first scenes we did with Jeanne Moreau were in the streets, on the Champs-Élysées. We had the camera in a baby carriage, and she had no light – it was black and white of course; we were using this new fast film, the Tri-X, which serious film makers thought too grainy. We did several long tracking shots of Jeanne Moreau... she was lit only by the windows of the Champs-Élysées. That had never been done. Cameramen would have forced her to wear a lot of make-up and they would put a lot of light on her because, supposedly, her face was not photogenic."

"That first week," he continued elsewhere, "there was a rebellion of the technicians at the lab after they had seen the dailies. They went to the producer and said, 'You must not let Malle and [cinematographer Henri] Decaë destroy Jeanne Moreau.' They were horrified." But thankfully, the producer didn't listen to them.

A little trivia note - As Moreau walks the streets, at some point a man comes up to her who thinks she's a, well, professional street walker - that's Malle doing a little walk-on part in the film. But Malle didn't need to "solicit" Moreau. The two became lovers during filming and continued their relationship for some time afterwards. Moreau said of their affair, "[O]ne would say, 'Well, you got involved emotionally because, well, it's natural when you work on a film.' Well, no, it's not always natural because I've made several films and all the directors of them didn't become my lover. There was something very exceptional – and when I say there was, I go further and say there is still, something. Whatever happens, even if Louis is not there anymore, he is still alive, because he opened doors for me, as though I came out of a jail, through him I discovered the freedom of cinema and exactly what cinema could mean – a modern way of communicating with the world."

I mentioned above that Malle took a lot of inspiration for his directorial style from Robert Bresson, but Hitchcock is also very obviously in his head in this film. Malle was conscious of these two, he noted, and they were both competing for his attention. "I realize now when I look at Elevator that I managed to inject – because we had the plot but the plot was like a skeleton – a number of themes that were, probably unconsciously, close enough to me that they would reappear in my work. But I also wanted to make a good thriller. The irony is, I was really split between my tremendous admiration for Bresson and the temptation to make a Hitchcock-like film. So there’s something about Elevator that goes from one to the other. In a lot of scenes, especially inside the elevator, I was trying to emulate Bresson…At the same time I was emulating Hitchcock in trying to do, even if slightly ironically, a thriller that works. The suspense, the surprises. And of course, stylistically, apart from the fact that it was my first film and as such full of clumsy things, I was closer to Bresson. So I was split."

Getting into the film itself, Malle has said, "The thing about this film is that it's a crime story, and yet it's really not. It's something else. It's an indictment of society. You have to remember the context.... So beneath the crime plot, there were quite specific and very pointed social references."

The changes going on in Paris, and the Western world in general, during the late 1950's and early 1960's, were pretty dramatic. The city's face was changing as new modern buildings were sprouting up altering the landscape. As in America (and other places) at the time, the new post-war generation were getting into that the whole juvenile delinquent/Rebel Without a Cause thing. Also, Malle is consciously commenting on the effects of the aftermarth of the French war in Indochina - the film's main character Tavernier is a Vietnam veteran. And at the time, France was just getting into its battles in Algeria.

One of the things that makes this film a good double bill with Amélie is that Jeunet, who directed Amélie, sought to create a nostalgic imaginary Paris, looking back at the past, while Malle, in this film, conversely sought to create a modern imaginary Paris, looking forward towards one that was just coming into existence at the time.

As Malle explained, "I was trying to portray a new generation through the characters of the teenagers (in those days they were called 'blousons noir' because they all wore black leather [literally it means 'black shirts'], those kids from the suburbs) – a description of the new Paris. Traditionally, it was always the René Clair Paris that French films presented, and I took care to show one of the first modern buildings in Paris.... I showed a Paris, not of the future, but at least a modern city, a world already somewhat dehumanized."

In another interview, he continued, [I gave Paris an air that was] oppressive, modern, a bit unsettling. For example, what I thought was most interesting, and still do, is the young, completely oblivious couple, eager to join in the general consumer frenzy. The young guy belongs completely to the next generation. He's ahead of his time. I remember people back then thought he was psychologically unrealistic. There were a number of signs like that in the film."

"We even cheated a little. For example, there's a motel in the film, supposedly just outside Paris. But there was only one motel in France, and it was quite new, near a beach 125 miles from Paris. That was the only motel in France. That's where we filmed. Besides that, the film shows a very modern Paris, very modern buildings, freeways. It's Paris as it would be ten years later. I did that on purpose. I was fed up with the atmosphere in French films of old bistros, of old-fashioned taxi drivers in their caps. I wanted to move on to something else. This Paris was a bit imaginary, one that didn't really exist yet. The building where the elevator is - there were only five such buildings in all of Paris. They were still very rare."

As mentioned above, the film begins to introduce the visual and emotional sensibilities of what would be dubbed the French New Wave, and is considered a classic for that reason alone. Then there's Moreau, of course. And then there's Miles Davis' soundtrack....


"That trumpet. It hangs over the viewer like the sword of Damocles, stirring anxiety, ennui, and a tinge of welcomed dread inside of us," wrote Ryan Wells of the soundtrack. I especially like that last part, "a tinge of welcomed dread inside of us." It's melancholy and romantic at the same time. It's one of the best soundtracks to get through a cold, dark wintery night.

While it is often said that Davis improvised the score while he was recording the soundtrack, that is not entirely true. He watched the movie then worked on some themes, ideas, and modes before actually recording it.

"Without Miles Davis," stated Malle,"I don't think the film would be as good.... It's what I was listening to at the time. I listened to a lot of Miles Davis, and when we were editing Elevator to the Gallows, by a lucky chance, he was in Paris. He was playing at the Club Saint-Germain , and with Boris Vian's [artistic director for Philips Records at the time] help, I talked him into doing the music for my film. Obviously, I was really nervous. It was an incredible break for me."

Not only was Malle listening to Miles, but, in fact, there's a shot of one of his album covers in the film, which was before Davis agreed to do the soundtrack.

As Miles remembered it, "I went to Paris again to play as a guest soloist for a few weeks. And it was during this trip that I met the French filmmaker Louis Malle through Juliette Gréco. He told me had always loved my music and that he wanted me to write the musical score for his new film, L'Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud. I agreed to do it and it was a great learning experience, because I had never written a music score for a film before. I would look at the rushes of the film and get musical ideas to write down. Since it was about a murder and was supposed to be a suspense movie, I used this old, very gloomy, dark building where I had the musicians play. I thought it would give the music atmosphere, and it did. Everyone loved what I did with the music on that film."

Malle organized a showing,” said Marcel Romano, who was a booking agent, music director/producer, and friend of both Davis and Malle. “The film crew was there. I narrated the film to Miles [in English], 'live.' The actor which left a deep impression on him was Lino Ventura [in the role of the inspector]. Miles kept saying, 'That guy's good.' He quickly said yes to the idea. I believe they had a piano carried into his hotel room. He worked on some music themes. Then they lunched together to speak about the film.”

In the afternoon before he recorded the session, his French lover, Jeannette Utreger (sister of the session's drummer René Urtreger) remembered: "At four in the afternoon we had rested for a while, when he got up and went to the bathroom naked, carrying his trumpet. He played a few notes, and said, 'This is the bass line I want [bassist] Pierre [Michelot] to play!'"

Michelot spoke of the recording, stating, “It was not like a lot of film music, emphasizing or trying to add to the emotion that is implicit in the images and the rest of the soundtrack. It was a counterpoint, it was elegiac – and it was somewhat detached. But it also created a certain mood for the film."

Jeanne Moreau was there that night, passing around champagne. She recalled in an interview, "The recording of the music - it was by night – that I remember very well.... Miles starting joking with me; making jokes about the way I walked all around." (In fact, Davis jokingly told a friend when he got back to New York that, "The bitch didn't know how to walk in rhythm.")

"Miles joked with the musicians," Moreau continued. "It was just made like that. It was incredible, incredible. It was a general feeling – it was a flow. It was a flow. It was some of these creations, artistic creations, and they happen naturally – it works, it's the right timing, it's the right time, the right day, the right mixture of people. And I was very happy. I had the impression that I was really starting to make films."

As unbelievable as it sounds today, when the film first opened in New York, the distributors didn't even give thought to inviting Davis to the press screening, which speaks to the difference that not only jazz music, but also African-Americans were considered in the US. Miles recalled, “I was not invited, until somebody reminded them. Then I was invited. I had a hard time. I couldn't have said what I really felt.”


In his autobiography, Davis wrote: "I had gotten into cooking. I just loved good food and hated going out to restaurants all the time, so I taught myself how to cook by reading books and practicing, just like you do on an instrument. I could cook most of the great French dishes - because I really like French cooking - and all the black American dishes. But my favorite was a chili dish that I called Miles's South Side Chicago Chili Mack. I served it with spaghetti, grated cheese, and oyster crackers."

And in John Szwed's biography of Davis, he provides a list of ingredients for Miles's chili, which Szwed noted was taught to Davis by his father, a middle-class medical doctor. Dr. Davis, "insisted that all cooking be done from scratch - he had come from a family in which everyone cooked (his sister [and Miles's aunt]) Josephine was head cook at a WPA center during the Depression). And he himself always cooked his specialties - spaghetti and meatballs, oxtail stew, chili - on Saturdays, the night when he came home early."

The documented history of chili (not to be confused, but often is with “chile” which is the name of the pepper, not the dish) as the 1500s and Cortés’s conquest of Mexico; in The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the author, one of Cortés’s soldiers notes that the Aztecs of Cholula were cooking up a dish which included “the salt, the pepper, and the tomates” with the meat of the dish to be contributed, literally, by he and his fellow conquistadors (which was also the forerunner of pozole, featured in my last post). According to the International Chili Society, cowboys in Texas would use whatever was handy for the protein in their chili – beef, buffalo, jackrabbit, armadillo, and even rattlesnake. And while some swear you must include beans in your chili, others will swear it's an abomination. Still others make vegetarian chili with beans instead of meat (heathens!).

As for the "chili mack," as with many dishes, no one really knows who was the first to pour a meat chili over some kind of noodle. But that doesn't stop some from trying to claim it. This article about a Washington, DC restaurant which seems to want to. But a cookbook from Walker's Austex Chili Company (from right here in Austin, Texas) which was either published "sometime in the 1930's" or 1918, has a recipe therein for "chili mac."

And as far as a Chicago-style chili, there really is no such thing. And while there was a restaurant called Chili Mac's in Chicago (which has since closed), as this article notes, they were simply making Cincinnati-style chili. “Real” Texas chili is never served over spaghetti (or any kind of noodle), and almost never with beans. Cincinnati chili is, however.

So, I would say that Miles' (or his father's) recipe is an improvisation on the Cincinnati-style chili. But, in that it is original, there is no reason why we shouldn't be able to deem it the "official" Chicago-style chili.

Finally, I'll note that "mac" is spelled by Miles with a "k." "Mac," of course, is short for macaroni (which other than spaghetti, was probably the only two forms of pasta Americans pre-1970's ever knew of) which is what the chili is typically served over. "Mack," on the other hand, might immediately conjure in your mind the Richard Pryor Blaxploitation movie, The Mack. In that film, a "mack" is a pimp. Interestingly, and synergistic for this post, the word is thought to derive from the French word for pimp, "maqereau" (literally "mackerel"), which was then shortened to "maq." It is suggested that this usage was first found in the US amongst the French Louisianans and then spread, eventually finding a home in African-American slang of the 1960's. Apparently though, it seems you can spell "mack daddy" as "mac daddy," if you like.

Now As much as I enjoy watching Elevator to the Gallows, I hate to admit it but I think if you cut everything out of it except for Jeanne Moreau wandering the Champs Elysées at night, accompanied by Miles Davis' elegaic soundtrack, I'd be just as happy. It's those scenes that really makes the movie for me.

The music and those wandering sequences share an improvisational quality. Moreau and director Louis Malle and a small crew would go out at night and just shoot wherever they could get good light and wherever the night took them. Moreau noted that, “[T]he only time, maybe, [Louis] spoke to me on the set about the film was – he is in the film at one time, our paths cross, as though he is a young man who thinks I'm a prostitute and we whisper things – but that's all.”

Louis Malle practiced his own form improvisation, both in his narrative films in the way he worked with his actors, and in his documentary work. Of the latter, he once said, “What I call cinéma direct is a kind of documentary where you completely improvise, you work with a minimal crew, you don’t try to organize reality, you just try to find where your interest or curiosity takes you, you try to film what you find interesting or surprising, and later try to make sense of it in the cutting room. It’s a cinema of instinct, of improvisation, a cinema very much of the present. As something happens, you try to catch it..”

Now there is a quote attributed to Miles Davis which, upon searching the Internet, appears in various forms. It could be: “There are no mistakes in jazz – only opportunities;” or it could be “In improvisation, there are no mistakes;” or “If you’re not making a mistake, it’s a mistake;” or even "Do not fear mistakes, there are none." .” Or maybe he made all those statements at different times, maybe one of them was the original quote and the rest are improvisations on that theme.

The same can be said of cooking. Yes, you can simply follow a recipe, in the same way you can play a song from sheet music just as it's written. If that was all there was to it, every time you'd hear a song played, no matter who was playing it, it would sound exactly the same. A uniformity of product. Just as you can walk into any Chili's Restaurant, from Bahrain to Venezuela, and their chili will taste exactly the same. But what makes two performances of a song – and two people's version of chili – different, is the departures from what's written, improvising here and there, trying “to find where your interest or curiosity takes you,” even “making mistakes,” and thus creating something original that can still be called a song - or a bowl of chili.

So being that neither Mr. Szwed nor Mr. Davis offer no directions as to prepare this dish – and that the ingredients are often vague as to amounts (How many beans? What size can of tomatoes?), you're going to have to improvise. So I'll make some suggestions, offer some technique in the directions – but for much of it, you'll be on your own. Will the result be exactly what Miles Davis made at home? Of course not (then again, you may hit upon the exact copy). But, and I think he would have appreciated this, it will be your variation on his theme.

As always... cook, eat, watch and enjoy!

Miles Davis' South Side Chicago Chili Mack
from a recipe by Miles Davis in So What: The Life of Miles Davis, by John Szwed
Click Here for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 6-8

(my measurements and suggestions are in parenthesis)

Bacon grease (2 tablespoons)
3 large cloves of garlic (minced)
1 green and 1 red pepper (about 12-14 ounces, cut into strips)
2 pounds ground lean chuck (I used ground chili beef 75/25)
2 teaspoons (ground) cumin
1/2 jar of mustard (4 tablespoons)
1/2 shot glass of (white) vinegar (2 tablespoons)
2 teaspoons chili powder (1 tablespoon)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
Pinto or kidney beans (2 15-ounce cans, drained)
1 can tomatoes (a 28-ounce can)
1 can beef broth (2 cups)

serve over linguine or spaghetti
with oyster crackers and grated Parmesan cheese

Fry up some bacon and reserve the grease (enjoy the bacon!).

Pour bacon grease in a large pot over medium heat and add the garlic. When garlic becomes fragrant, about a minute, add the beef and peppers. Continue to cook until meat is browned.

Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to boil, then lower to simmer, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook your pasta and drain.

To serve family style, put pasta in large serving dish and spoon chili over. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and crackers on the side.

Elevator to the Gallows @ The Criterion Collection
Elevator to the Gallows @ Senses of Cinema
Louis Malle on Elevator to the Gallows @ Rialto Pictures
Vincent Malle on Elevator to the Gallows @ Landmark Theaters website
Louis Malle Biography @ The New Wave Film Encyclopedia
Critic Kenneth Turan on Elevator to the Gallows @ NPR
Official Miles Davis Website
PBS Miles Davis page

Elevator to the Gallows (The Criterion Collection) DVD/Streaming
Elevator to the Gallows OST CD/MP3
Elevator to the Gallows 11 x 17 Movie Poster
Malle on Malle, Louis Malle & Philip French
The Films of Louis Malle: A Critical Analysis, by Nathan C. Southern
Miles: The Autobiography, by Miles Davis & Quincy Troupe
So What: The Life of Miles Davis, by John Szwed

No comments:

Post a Comment