Shoot The Piano Player

by

François Truffault

 

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 River."

François Truffault's "Shoot The Piano Player" is a rarity: a film that crosses traditional lines and memorably mixes great comedy with great drama.

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 empathy.

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.

This film ranks fourth in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films.

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