Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Shoot the Piano Player

Films in Focus

By Jean-Paul Garrieux

Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste, Cocinor, 1960) – Director Francois Truffaut. Writers: Marcel Moussy (adaptation), Francois Truffaut (adaptation and dialogue), David Goodis (novel). Stars: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michele Mercier, Serge Davri, Claude Mansard, Richard Kanayan, Albert Remy, Jean-Jacques Aslanian, Daniel Boulanger, Claude Heymann, Alex Joffé, Boby Lapointe & Catherine Lutz. B&W, 92 minutes.

In 1960 Francois Truffaut was on top of the world. His first feature, The 400 Blows, a wonderful coming-of-age story, was a hit with critics and moviegoers alike. Both groups were wondering and speculating about how Truffaut would follow it up. When Shoot the Piano Player was released, audiences mainly stayed away and the critics were divided.

Move ahead to today and the film is seen as a classic. Time always has a strange way of changing the perception of a film. When Hitchcock’s Vertigo was released, both the critics and the public were less than enthused. Today, many now see it as the greatest film ever made.      

Shoot the Piano Player is Truffaut’s tribute to the American B gangster movies of the 1940s and ‘50s he so loved and would spend hours out of his day watching at second-run theaters. However, he wasn’t so much interested in imitating those movies as he was to bending them to his own vision, such as Edgar Ulmer had done with the noir Detour (1945), and Nicholas Ray had done with Johnny Guitar (1954).    

The director also wanted to depart from the plot of The 400 Blows, lest he become typecast. He was working with Godard on a project to star Bernadette Lafont. But he suddenly switched gears and turned to Down There, a 1956 pulp novel by David Goodis, one of his favorite authors, and which had been published in France as Tirez sur le pianiste, or Shoot the Piano Player.      

Truffaut first read Goodis' novel while shooting Les Mistons in 1957 when his wife Madeleine Morgenstern read it and recommended it to him. He immediately loved the book's dialogue and poetic tone and showed it to producer Pierre Braunberger, who bought the rights and gave the director a budget of $150,000.

Awed by how Goodis blended the hard-boiled with the romantic and the fantastic, Truffaut wanted to further blend Goodis with the comic novelist Raymond Queneau, creating a film that was “practically a musical.” It was a daunting project for a young director trying to create a new way of looking at pulp noir.      

Both Truffaut and his cowriter Marcel Moussy are faithful to the novel’s plot and even its offbeat structure (in the film, as in the book, about halfway through the action is interrupted by lengthy flashback). Aside from moving the action to Paris (from Philadelphia) and adding a few minor characters, they kept the story of a washed-up concert pianist who has forsaken the world for a job playing in a dive bar and who, in a weak moment of family loyalty, gets involved with gangsters.       

Charlie Kohler (Aznavour) is a shy, retiring piano player in a cheap Parisian dance bar. He is raising his youngest brother Fido (Kanayan) with the help of prostitute neighbor Clarisse (Mercier), who at one time was Charlie's mistress. His peace is suddenly shattered with the appearance of his brother Chico (Remy), who tells Charlie that he and Charlie’s other brother, Richard (Aslanian), are being pursued by Momo (Mansard) and Ernest (Boulanger), a couple of gangsters they double-crossed in a deal. Although Charlie wants no part of it, when the gangsters enter the bar looking for Chico, Charlie helps him escape. Now they are after Charlie as well. 

He takes refuge at the apartment of Lena (Dubois) a waitress at the bar who has fallen in love with him. She has also discovered his hidden past, that his real name is Edouard Saroyan, a brilliant rising young concert pianist, and in a flashback we see now Charlie’s obsession with his career led his wife, Therese (Berger) to confess that she had gotten him his first shot a fame by sleeping with an impresario. Edouard walked out on her, but returned on a premonition to find that she had committed suicide. Shattered and holding himself to blame, he abandoned his career and changed his name to fit in with his new outlook: to avoid any sort of trouble or entanglement. 

Now he is in love with Lena, who is encouraging him to give concert performing another try. They give their notice at the bar, mainly because Plyne (Davri) the bartender gave Momo and Ernest their addressees, but Charlie is forced to fight with Plyne for Lena and accidentally kills him in the back alley. Meanwhile, Momo and Ernest, having failed in their abduction of Charlie and Lena, kidnap Fido in an attempt to force Charlie’s hand. After attempting to cover up Plyne’s death, Charlie and Lena drive to Charlie’s family home in Savoie, where Chico and Richard are hiding.   

Lena leaves for town, but returns the next morning to tell Charlie that the charges of him killing Plyne have been dropped on the grounds of self-defense with the neighbors helping to back up his story. As Ernest and Momo have not yet arrived, Charlie now believes they have something else in mind and heads back with Lena to town when Momo and Ernest finally arrive with Fido. As they head up the hill and towards the cabin, Fido makes a run for it. In the ensuing gun battle between Charlie's brothers and the gangsters, Lena is killed by a stray bullet. Cleared by police in Plyne's death, Charlie returns to his old job as a piano player at the cafe.      


The critics were divided on the film. While some saw confusion, others saw charm and groundbreaking innovation instead. In France one critic described it as “a sort of manifesto against the dominant, passive cinema,” while another described it as “a thriller told by a child. Everything is lost in a dream.”    

In America, critics were mostly confused by it all. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissed it as “nuttiness,” noting that Truffaut seemingly went haywire, unable to control the material. But Pauline Kael saw the film as a triumph. In her review The New Yorker, she wrote that when she referred to Truffaut's style as anarchic and nihilistic, she was referring to a style, rather than an absence of such. What she found exciting about movies like Shoot the Piano Player was “that they, quite literally, move with the times. They are full of unresolved, inexplicable, disharmonious elements, irony and slapstick and defeat all compounded  not arbitrarily as the reviewers claim  but in terms of the film maker's efforts to find some expression for his own anarchic experience.”

What those who panned the film missed was that, for Truffaut, films were not so much an expression of plot as they were of the human condition that he saw as an uneasy mix of worldweary alienation and flip cynical humor, such as Godard did in Breathless. His remarks in a 1960 interview attest to that vision: “There isn't much story to tell. I have tried to give a portrait of a timid man, divided between society and his art, and to show his relationship with three women. But no treatise, no message, no psychology; it moves between the comic and the sad, and back again.” Later he would say that, “the idea was to make a film without a subject, to express all I wanted to say about glory, success, downfall, failure, women and love by means of a detective story.”

For Truffaut the human condition is chaotic, and this is reflected rather brilliantly in the film by its changes of mood. For example, as the film begins we are thrown into the midst of action as the camera follows a running figure, who we later learn is Charlie’s brother Chico, pursued down a street by unseen assailants. Suddenly a passerby collides with the man on the run. In the midst of apologies on both sides the passerby tells his story  he’s an ordinary man on his way home where his to a wife of 11 years, who he loves very much, is waiting for him and invites Chico to walk with him as he talks about how he met his wife.      

When Chico remarks that he wishes he was married, the man replies that it sounds like he really means it. “It has its good points,” he says. “We almost didn't make it at first. I'd watch her over breakfast, wondering how to get rid of her.” He tells Chico all about marriage and children and then says to Chico that since they probably won't see each other after this, he feels more comfortable being frank and spilling his guts to him. After the stranger arrives in front of his home he wishes Chico goodbye and goes in, never to be seen again in the film. The tale he tells, however, sets an opening mood of melancholy regret that underlies the film.     

Once Chico ducks into bar where Charlie is working we learn who he is and why he came to that particular bar. The mood now shifts to an absurd slapstick as his pursuers follow and Charlie, much like Chaplin in a silent slapstick, helps him escape out the back. When Charlie learns of Lena’s love of him from afar, the mood shifts again to one of romance and shifts back again to comedy when the gunmen pursuing Chico put the squeeze on Charlie and Lena and kidnap Fido. Then the film takes on the mood of a mystery when the truth about Charlie and the circumstances that brought him to his withdrawn state are revealed in a flashback. And finally, in the gun battle, the mood switches to one of noir.

For Truffaut, every drama has moments of comedy or comic irony. Is it any wonder that Truffaut has Edouard take the name of Charlie (as in Chaplin) and that there are four brothers, one of whom is named Chico (the Marx Brothers)? When Charlie and Lena are abducted by Momo and Ernest, looking to learn the whereabouts of the other brothers, Truffaut spices the scene with a little absurd humor, taking our minds off the seriousness of the situation. 

When Momo and Ernest kidnap Charlie, and then Lena, the kidnappers are bickering back and forth on how bad of a driver Ernest is. Ernest looks at Lena and asks if he shocking her, to which Lena responds, “Not at all. I've met bastards before. I'm learning something.” Ernest then says that no matter what women say, “they all want it." Charlie is confused. “Want what?” he asks. Then, when Ernest begins rambling on about women, Charlie says, "If I may, on the subject of women, my father used to say that if you've seen one, you've seen them all,” which causes everyone in the car, including Lena, to burst into hysterical laughter.     
After the kidnappers take Fido back to their place they begin showing him all their cool accessories. When Momo lies about his scarf being Japanese Fido says that there is no reason to lie about that. Momo replies that “If I'm lying, may my mother kneel over this instant.” Truffaut then inserts a humorous clip of her falling down dead.

In the final analysis, Shoot the Piano Player is a totally unique film, one that takes us to the heart of existential anguish while avoiding the trap of becoming unrelentingly downbeat. Truffaut manages to see the underlying ironic humor in circumstances that themselves are decidedly unfunny by simply catching that laughter and applying a tone of melancholy without killing the jest. He is aided by the excellent performances of Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger and Albert Remy in the principal roles, while Raoul Coutard’s beautiful cinematography combines with Georges Delerue’s unforgettable score in creating a perfect overall atmosphere of mystery about characters who, despite their circumstances and failing, never manage to lose their sense of self. This is that makes Shoot the Piano Player a film of fascination that endures to this day, never becoming dated nor losing any of its punch. A rare feat, indeed. 

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