The filmmakers who dominated the French New Wave, particularly Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, made no secret of their adoration for American genre movies, and many tried their hand at distinctive variations on these cinematic standards. For Truffaut, his first such foray would be into the gangster film; ironically so, as it was not a genre he was especially fond of. He liked Howard Hawks’ 1932 classic Scarface (who doesn’t?), but he detested gangsters in the movies and in real life, and the only way he could get through this seedy milieu was to add a dash of humor and a healthy degree of self-reference.
With Shoot the Piano Player, his film version of David Goodis’ 1956 novel, Down There, Truffaut took the author’s essential criminal framework and adjusted the tonal treatment of the gangster and the assessment of its unwitting protagonist. Truffaut liked outsiders, those individuals on the margins of society, but he preferred them to be solitary figures, not belonging to a gang or clique. In a sense, he gets it both ways with this 1960 underworld riff. Here, Edouard Saroyan, alias Charlie Kohler, is perpetually surrounded — sometimes by inane strangers, sometimes by intimate associates –but he is also alone, “even when he is with someone.” In the face of it all, indeed, in order to face it all, he maintains an impenetrable front and an inscrutable expression that lasts from his introduction to the film’s final shot.
Before Truffaut gets to the more empirical dilemmas of the film, and its blatant departures from the generic tried and true, he initiates the story with a scene straight out of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Shoot the Piano Player plunges the viewer headlong into a chaotic, nocturnal world where a man, soon revealed to be Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), brother of Edouard, Charles Aznavour’s withdrawn pianist, is barreling down barely lit streets as unidentified pursuers are hot on his tail. Stumbling in his haste, Chico slams into a lamp post. Like the abruptness of his collision, the previously frenetic film sharply stalls, halting the progression of Chico’s flight and the forward momentum of its own narrative advancement. Chico is helped to his feet by a passing stranger, and with that, Truffaut follows the two as they casually stroll down the street, nonchalantly discussing their lives in details instantly perceived as extraneous to the film at hand. It is perhaps part of Chico’s scheme to keep cool, to blend in as if nothing were amiss, but it is also a storytelling strategy on the part of Truffaut, to employ the familiar Nouvelle Vague trope of digression in order to thwart the viewer’s expectations. And it won’t be the last time.
Chico arrives at a honkytonk dive where his brother, a former concert pianist, is slumming it under the pseudonym Charlie Kohler. The siblings haven’t seen each other in four years, but that absence doesn’t stop Chico from making his case and pleading for assistance. The danger he faces is the self-inflicted result of a job he pulled with another Saroyan brother, Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), and two ex-partners in crime, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger). Honor among thieves be damned, the Saroyans made off with the loot and left the other two fuming and out for damages. Charlie accepts that Chico is in a fix, but he wants nothing to do with his dubious crisis. Persistence pays off, though, and despite Charlie’s reticence, he and Chico are brothers to the end. In a rapid photographic jolt of character stimulation, Truffaut swiftly cuts into a close-up of Aznavour’s eyes as he decides to help his brother. In a split-second, he seals his fate. Such definitive moments in Charlie’s life recur throughout Shoot the Piano Player, and they are often underscored with a strong graphic representation, but where a normal film of this kind would resume with Chico’s getaway, Truffaut again resists. Instead, there is another detour as Boby Lapointe pops in to sing alongside a ditty Charlie hammers out on the piano (in a wink of New Wave playfulness, the lyrics appear on the screen). Though Lapointe is singing a bawdy tune about a girl, the words of his song echo Charlie’s irreversible decision: “That’s fate, tit for tat.”
Fate has been no friend of Charlie Kohler (or, for that matter, Edouard Saroyan), and it’s starting to show. After seeing him in Georges Franju’s 1959 film, Head Against the Wall, Truffaut was keen to work with the multitalented Aznavour, and he wrote the Edouard/Charlie role with the popular entertainer in mind. It was inspired casting. Aznavour capably conveys Charlie’s tired, remote despair, his dead-eyed, hang-dog blankness and his pervasive apathy. At the same time, this behavior doesn’t seem convincingly genuine, or at least it’s a little forced — by Charlie, not Aznavour. Rather, Charlie’s demeanor gives the impression of a mask, an adopted veneer. But to what aim? Before he went back on the lam, Chico comments about Charlie playing in such a rundown venue as the rowdy cafe. From concert halls to this! So why is here there? Banking on the immediate appeal of the sensational set-up, and Aznavour’s recognition, Truffaut plays his noirish hand by keeping some mystery to this cool, seemingly callous piano player and his as yet undisclosed backstory. His movements and interactions suggest a willful choice to remain at a distance, purposefully detached from an outside world he deems dangerous, frivolous or merely tedious (or perhaps all three). Yet the pretense feels less about the here and now than it does a latent past that drives his persona. “I can see you’ve been through the wringer, too,” café proprietor Plyne (Serge Davri) says to Charlie. Viewers see it too.
To sooth his distain and discomfort with the gangster environment, and to further define his screen adaptation, Truffaut bestows a partly autobiographical meekness to Goodis’ lead character, who in the book is a strong, confident figure. Not unlike Truffaut himself, part of Charlie’s apparent reserve and social aloofness stems from his timidity. Told by Plyne that he is shy and scared, Charlie never denies the shy part (and eventually comes around to accepting his fear). With Léna (Marie Dubois), a waitress at the café and the obvious object of his affection, Charlie is like a bashful schoolboy as he attempts to solidify their relationship. Truffaut lingers behind the two as they walk side-by-side, Charlie’s hands mechanically reaching out to touch Léna, only to then hesitantly pull back on second thought. In voiceover, he repeatedly questions his actions and doubts his potential. Every now and then, cracks appear in this apprehension, as when the generally expressionless Charlie perks up with Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), his prostitute neighbor with benefits. “Shy people can be bold too,” he says as they jump into bed (in a scene that features rather audacious nudity, often excised from imported cuts of the film). Here when the consequences don’t really matter, Charlie reveals a hint of what used to be a smooth streak. Now, that approach has been largely leveled by a sensitive shield, a defense mechanism of sorts that protects Charlie from emotional engagement.
The cause of Charlie’s psychological condition comes to light in a prolonged flashback. For a film 81 minutes long, it may be a little too extensive, but it is, in any case, vital to what shaped his shell. Charlie, when he was Edouard, used to be married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger). They were happily in love (the happier the better for the eventual scar of tragedy), and he was simply trying to get his career on track. A chance encounter with music impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann) leads to success then heartbreak as Thérèse succumbs to infidelity, in part to assist Charlie’s chances with Schmeel, and ultimately commits suicide in her shame. Before that point, however, just as he is about to enter Schmeel’s apartment for the first time, Truffaut hones in on Charlie’s finger as it hovers near the doorbell. There are three cuts, each slightly closer to the appendage, extending the action and emphasizing another of those moments from which there will be no turning back. Upon entering the room and beginning the deceptively professional relationship with Schmeel, everything will change for the unknowing Charlie, and Truffaut augments the visual emphasis to give it due prominence.
Charlie has a chance to start over, and with Léna, he has the promise of both love and redemption. But fate again steps in, as it is wont to do. While Chico and Richard are holed up in the country, their kid brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), a little liability who lives with Charlie, is kidnapped by Momo and Ernest. Charlie gets into further trouble when he stabs the belligerent Plyne in self-defense. At their remote rural outpost, where they await the rendezvous with the two captors, Chico tells Charlie, “Now you’re just like us.” Charlie looks at his reflection in cracked mirror, an almost too on-the-nose illustration of his shattered ideals. He is “a killer in a family of thieves.” Everything leads to a snow-covered climax, a final sequence that enabled Truffaut to imprint on celluloid the image that made him want to do the film in the first place: the kidnappers driving silently through the billowing white landscape. But such tranquility is not to be — the serenity is destined for tragedy.
Just as Truffaut’s 1959 breakthrough The 400 Blows was demonstrably French, he wanted to do something explicitly American with Shoot the Piano Player. But while its inspiration may have been born from those Hollywood features he so admired, this is unmistakably, and unavoidably, a work of French cinema. In its cast alone, even aside from Aznavour, the film vaunts a roster of familiar faces. Albert Rémy had appeared in The 400 Blows as well as Marcel Carné’s masterful Children of Paradise (1945), along with Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955) and Elena and Her Men (1956) (he passed away seven years after Shoot the Piano Player came out, at age 51). Making her screen debut, Marie Dubois appeared uncredited in Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman the next year and then showed up in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (Dubois’ real name was Claudine Huzé; Truffaut gave her the stage moniker). Then there’s Richard Kanayan as Fido, a character not in the novel. He too had appeared in The 400 Blows and kept the cast and crew entertained with his high-spirited antics (his sidewalk boogie in Shoot the Piano Player was a spontaneous wiggle done on a whim and kept in the film).
On the technical front, the picture employs many of the innovations credited to cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who was as integral to the imagery of the French New Wave as Shoot the Piano Player composer Georges Delerue was to its sound. Truffaut was encouraged by what he saw in the dailies for Godard’s Breathless (1960), and subsequently implemented something of that same style of jumpy, handheld camera work and the use of natural light. Truffaut and Coutard punctuate Shoot the Piano Player with a vibrant rendering of its wintry Parisian setting, where the city is an ever-present visual marker, from the neon lights that flicker into Charlie’s apartment to the candid street-level shooting (even when Charlie and Schmeel move out on a balcony to talk, ostensibly to smoke, Truffaut fills the frame with the bustling boulevard below). He did not commit to the full aesthetic eccentricity of Godard (though the film is nearly as car-centric as a Godard’s), but Truffaut also toys with amusing formal fixtures, not unlike his New Wave counterpart: the exaggerated reflection in Léna’s compact, a circled tripartite screen division, the comic cutaway to Momo’s mother keeling over on cue.
Truffaut first read Goodis’ novel while shooting Les Mistons in 1957, and he brought the text to producer Pierre Braunberger, a figure as vital to the New Wave as any director. It was a solid property and Truffaut was coming off the enormous success of The 400 Blows, so it didn’t take long for production to commence. Working with Marcel Moussy, who had co-written The 400 Blows, Truffaut pounded out a script and filming followed from late November 1959 until late January 1960, with some minor reshoots in March. Upon release, however, Shoot the Piano Player was a financial and critical disappointment. As Truffaut has pointed out, the second film from most New Wavers met with similar reactions, as high hopes went unmet and critics voiced a desire to see failure catch up with these hotshot Young Turks.
Part of the film’s negative response had to do with its persistently fluctuating tone. It is a kind of catch-all film, with more than one genre getting a referential nod, and though now seen as a key source of its worth, such variation left certain viewers unable, or unwilling, to accept the intentionally variable swagger. Truffaut, for example, gives the criminal routine a light touch; with Momo and Ernest arguing about driving, women and their clothing, they are a bumbling, rambling duo hard to take serious. His approach to gangster conventions wasn’t to be such much a parody as it was a pastiche. Like his story of the wannabe hood who became Michel Poiccard in Breathless, or like the crooks in Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), the felons here appear to be living in a fantasy world of crime. “You shouldn’t look for reality in Piano Player,” Truffaut contends. Which is fine, until real violence occurs.
By comparison, however fantastical the gangster element is, Truffaut transmits a much more realistic depiction of Charlie’s tortured soul. As Plyne and Léna begin an argument toward the end of the film, Charlie avoids the confrontation and slinks off. “It’s none of your business,” he says in a somber voiceover. “Nothing is. Just take your place at the piano.” Then he does just that, consenting to his place at work and in life. Similarly, right before he stares ahead in an enigmatic daze, framed by Truffaut with same sort of existential uncertainty seen at the close of The 400 Blows, Charlie is introduced in the final words of the film: he is “Charlie, the piano player.” This was and remains his identity, and by the film’s conclusion, after further misfortune has besmirched a fleeting glance at hopefulness, Charlie finds security in the insipid life of a low-key “could-have-been.”
Truffaut was once asked if Shoot the Piano Player is comic or tragic. He said it was both: “I wanted to make women cry and men laugh.” Such novelty leads to a jazzy fusion of style and tenor; he actually considered it “practically a musical film.” More than anything, though, Truffaut uses Shoot the Piano Player as a vehicle with which to acknowledge the influence of his wide-ranging filmic passion. “If there is a skeleton key to Truffaut’s oeuvre, it is Shoot the Piano Player,” writes Kent Jones, “the film in which all of his assorted gifts and preoccupations are in play and meshed into a uniquely idiosyncratic whole.” Fittingly, then, the film appears exceptionally cinematic, with its editorial ploys, self-conscious devices and its genre allusions. While Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) is his most pronounced and profound love letter to the moviemaking process, Shoot the Piano Player is an exuberant tribute to the end result.
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Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.