By Carter B. Horsley
A film can be great for many
reasons. It can have great acting performances. It can have innovative
cinematography. It can have sensational direction. It can be a
brilliant storytelling. It can have awesome special effects. Everyone's
list of fabulous films has a mix of different genres, usually
with different standards. How do you compare "Great Expectations"
with "King Kong," or "Citizen Kane" with "Red
"Shoot The Piano Player" is a rarity: a film that crosses
traditional lines and memorably mixes great comedy with great
A masterpiece, it is not only
Truffault's greatest film, but also the definitive New Wave film,
edging out Godard's "Breathless," which depended more
on the star magnetism of Jean Paul Belmondo and the wackiness
of Jean Seberg in a parody of American B gangster movies than
on the artistic merits of its story, direction or cinematography.
(Truffault, incidentally, wrote the script for "Breathless.")
There are very, very few films
in which nearly every scene is perfect, but "Shoot the Piano
Player" comes quite close. It is amazing how many films have
spectacular openings, especially during the credits, and then
fall back on rather routine filmmaking.
In "Shoot the Piano Player,"
Truffault is pyrotechnical throughout infusing each scene with
startling poignancy, or unexpected intensity, or outrageous humor,
or simply superb acting. He uses almost every trick in a director's
grab bag and the viewer becomes especially alert because the unsettling
style is unpredictable but always extremely interesting. There
are flashbacks. There are long passages where attention is raptly
diverted only to reinforce a stunning effect. There is a brilliant
use of music, by George Delerue, and incredible performances.
Above all, there is love and affection and a light touch that
makes misery bearable.
What is most endearing about
"Shoot the Piano Player" is its frankness about the
complexity and chance of life and love. It offers few answers,
but its self-effacing honesty poses the right questions. Vastly
entertaining, the movie handles great themes of pathos, privacy,
lust, ambition, family, duty and art without grandiosity or any
trace of pomposity.
The 1960 film, based on a book
by David Goodis, followed by one year Truffault's first directorial
effort, the sentimental "The 400 Blows," and preceded
by one year his first major commercial success, the charming,
but lightweight "Jules and Jim" with the wonderfully
saucy and carefree Jeanne Moreau.
The piano player in the film
is played by Charles Aznavour, the famous French singer, whose
stoic stare is resolutely pained. His bravura performance is equaled
by the captivating and tender work of the radiant female leads,
Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger and Michele Mercier.
Much has been made of the influence
of American gangster movies on Europeans and especially the French
directors whose so-called New Wave became a dominant stylistic
influence in liberating the Sixties. "Shoot the Piano Player"
is appropriately dark and atmospheric and the lead, a former concert
pianist, performs demurely with a jaunty house band in a neighborhood
Parisian cafe until his gangster brother gets him in trouble.
The film's pace is finely modulated
from the opening scene of running footsteps on a dark street to
the mirthful syncopation of the band's theme at the cafe to the
cascade of snowflakes in the film's climax.
One of the best scenes involves
the lead's important audition with a major impresario. He walks
down a long corridor to the office and is about to press the doorbell
to the office, but waits until the end of a violin solo from within.
The door opens and an attractive female violinist emerges and
the lead goes in side while the camera follows the violinist back
down the hall focusing on her expressionless face. It's a long
corridor and finally we hear the impressive start of a piano piece
that almost stops the violinist in her tracks, but she continues
and the camera remains in her face as she exits the building and
the camera never bothers to show the actual audition. The violinist
does not reappear in the film, but the intensity of her aspirations
and frustrations cannot be forgotten and epitomize the movie's
The film was critically well-received,
with a few exceptions, when it was released, but one scene, involving
an unexpected appearance of a character's mother, was so broadly
funny that it virtually overshadowed the brilliance of the film
at the time.
After about a dozen viewings,
the scene is still hilarious as is much of the film, but the film's
humanity, not without its proud and often profane posturing, endures.
In 1993, Peter Burnette edited
a marvelous collections of reviews and essays on the film in a
book, published by Roundhouse Publishing, with the same title
as the film. In his introductory essay, Burnette notes that "Concerned
as it is with its own manufacturer, it is a modernist text, and
stands, not unworthily, in the self-reflexive tradition of the
great modernists of literature like James Joyce, Marcel Proust,
Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett....Yet Truffault's self-reflexive
gestures in this film go beyond the merely modernist toward what
has come, many years after the film was made, to be called the
postmodernist....One particularly noteworthy theme is the manner
in which the film systematically confounds and dismantles binary
oppositions, the (shaky) structure for so much of our thinking,
and perhaps for logic itself. One way this challenge is accomplished
in the film is through a persistent, critical examination of borders,
especially the borders between inside and outside, and the idea
of context or frame that gives a border its sense. Another important
postmodernist theme with which the film deals concerns the coherence
and unity of the individual self."
In an interview in the book
with Hélène Larouche Davis, Truffault recounts that
had read Goodis's novel shortly after he had written the scenario
for Breathless, which would subsequently be directed by
Jean Luc Godard. "I was enthused by the dialogue, the poetic
tone of the book, the love story, the evocation of the past. I
gave the novel to Pierre Braunberger, who was the only producer
to take an interest in the young directors, and he liked it a
lot and bought the rights to it. Then while working on the adaptation,
I felt that it was not right to start with this film. So I offered
the script of The 400 Blows to him and he turned it down. He preferred
Shoot The Piano Player. So I made The 400 Blows with my father-in-law
who was a retired producer," Truffault recounted.
Truffault's intent was to create
an "abstract" film that was a pastiche/parody of American
cinema as well as explore a man's different feelings towards different
women. He selected Aznavour because he "liked his face, the
way he moved." Nicole Berger, who was Braunberger's stepdaughter,
had acted in several films including the excellent The Game
of Love and was, according to Truffault, "a very sensitive
girl, sad and interesting." "Michele Mercier was a dancer
and not well known," Truffault continued, and Marie Dubois
was "the result of a search...for someone to convey the idea
of purity." "...when I saw her, I was sure she was the
right one. She finally came at the last minute. We hardly had
time to buy her a raincoat for her part and she started right
away. Actually I named her Marie Dubois, because her name was
not good for an actress. Her name was Claudine Huzeé [In
French Huzé is pronounced like usée and means 'worn
out.']. Since I liked that novel by Jacques Audiberti entitled
Marie Dubois, which is a great portrait of a woman, I proposed
that name to her and she agreed to be named Marie Dubois. And
Audiberti was very happy."
For Truffault, the film transcends
being a gangster movie and becomes something of a fairy tale in
which there are "no privileged people", "you must
love them all equally," he stated in another interview in
the book with Yvonne Baby.