Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste)

Director: François Truffaut
Screenplay: François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (based on the novel Down There by David Goodis))
Stars: Charles Aznavour (Charlie Kohler / Edouard Saroyan), Marie Dubois (Léna), Nicole Berger (Thérèse Saroyan), Michèle Mercier (Clarisse), Serge Davri (Plyne), Claude Mansard (Momo), Richard Kanayan (Fido Saroyan), Albert Rémy (Chico Saroyan), Jean-Jacques Aslanian (Richard Saroyan), Daniel Boulanger (Ernest), Claude Heymann (Lars Schmeel)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1960
Country: France
Shoot the Piano Player Criterion Collection DVD
Shoot the Piano PlayerLike so many other members of the French New Wave, François Truffaut grew up watching and admiring American B movies, and his second feature film, Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste), was the first of his “respectful pastiches” of those movies. Based on an otherwise unremarkable gangster novel by American genre specialist David Goodis, Shoot the Piano Player stays true to the genre films that inspired it, but also cuts loose in new directions, suggesting the playfulness and willingness to experiment that were the hallmarks of the French New Wave.

The film begins in classic gangster movie mode, with a man running breathlessly through the streets, obviously trying to escape from someone who is chasing him. Almost as quickly, though, the film shows the first signs of unconventional narrative when the man is helped by a complete stranger with whom he engages in a conversation about love and marriage that would seem to have no narrative function outside of mere digression (there are thematic links that become apparent later, but at this point there seems to be no point). The man on the run is Chico (Albert Rémy), and he eventually makes his way to a well-populated bar where his brother, Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), is banging out honky-tonk tunes on the piano.

Charlie reluctantly helps Chico escape from the two men who are following him, at which point it becomes clear that this is Charlie’s story. Charlie is a slight, introverted man (a significant change from the hero of Goodis’ source novel, who is much more physically strapping). He walks Léna (Marie Dubois), one of the waitresses, home and agonizes over how to hold her hand or talk to her so he doesn’t seem awkward. At home, he cares for his kid brother Fido (Richard Kanayan) and occasionally sleeps with Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), a friendly prostitute who lives down the hall.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Truffaut is less interested in the simple genre dynamics of the story than he is in the character of Charlie. In the most simple of terms, Charlie is a divided character (not how often we see him reflected in mirrors), a man who is running away from a haunted past just as surely as he is now running from the two gangsters who were trying to catch his brother. Charlie’s past involves tragedy and misfortune, and the lengthy flashback sequence in the middle of the film in which we see where he came from and how he lost his wife (Nicole Berger) is genuinely heartbreaking. We see why Charlie would want to change his name and disappear into the anonymity of playing piano at a corner bar, rather than living up to his potentials as a famous musician, a sentiment that Truffaut possible felt after the runaway success of his debut film, The 400 Blows (1959).

As Charlie, Charles Aznavour, who was known primarily as a singer-composer at the time, creates an indelible portrait of a man at war with himself and hiding from the world. He doesn’t speak much, but we see his inner turmoil in his face and in his actions. He wants to be reborn, yet at the same time is deathly afraid to emerge from the cocoon he has built for himself. His path to salvation is, not surprisingly, a woman, in this case the good-hearted waitress Léna, who has had her eye on him for a long time, but hasn’t had a way to approach him. Their getting caught up in Chico’s criminal affairs proves to be the glue that brings them together, thus allowing Truffaut to mix genres at their base.

For Truffaut, Shoot the Piano Player was an explosion of the gangster genre. He freely admitted that the film played like four or five different films, which was his intention from the outset. His goal was pastiche--to glue together various disparate cinematic elements to make something new and unexpected. The film has twists and turns and unexpected developments, but rather than being plot-directed, the twists are tonal. You never know when the film is going to veer from gangster to comedy to romance to mystery-suspense. Truffaut’s effective incorporation of physical comedy, sweet romance, and heightened melodrama plays off the obvious gangster conventions (borrowed primarily from film noir of the 1940s), which makes Shoot the Piano Player one of the first postmodern cinematic masterpieces, a film that holds together even though its constituent parts would seem to clash to the point of canceling each other out.

Shoot the Piano Player Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AudioFrench Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholars Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • New video interview with actor Charles Aznavour
  • New video interview with actress Marie Dubois
  • New video interview with director of photography Raoul Coutard
  • Interview with Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman
  • Two archival interview with Truffaut
  • The Music of Georges Delerue illustrated essay
  • Marie Dubois’ screen test
  • 28-page insert booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kent Jones, an interview with Truffaut, and Truffaut writing on Aznavour and Dubois
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateDecember 4, 2005

    Criterion’s excellent new high-definition transfer of Shoot the Piano Player, which was personally supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, was made from a 35mm fine-grain print and digitally restored. The anamorphic widescreen image is bright and clean, looking nearly flawless from start to finish. It has strong contrast and detail, which does justice to the film’s evocative noir-ish cinematography. Blacks are generally dark, although there are a few points at which they seem to gray out slightly.

    The original monaural soundtrack, transferred from the 35mm magnetic tracks at 24-bit and digitally restored, sounds excellent for its age. The previously available Criterion laser disc included an optional English-dubbed soundtrack, but it is not included on the DVD.

    While Criterion’s laser disc featured only an original trailer, the new two-disc DVD special edition of Shoot the Piano Player is loaded with supplements (Criterion’s Truffaut discs are among their most comprehensive in terms of supplements). The first disc includes, along with the original French theatrical trailer, a first-rate screen-specific audio commentary by film scholars Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf, the latter of whom also contributed to Criterion’s Jules and Jim commentary. Brunette and Insdorf were recorded together, so their commentary, while scholarly in nature, has the easiness and flow of good conversation. It’s definitely worth a listen.

    The second disc is loaded with new interviews, starting with three new interviews with actors Charles Aznavour and Marie Dubois (both of whom were interviewed in 2005) and director of photography Raoul Coutard (who was interviewed in 2003). The second disc also includes some archival materials, starting with a real gem: a rare interview with Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman (she worked with him in various capacities ranging from writer, to assistant director, to actress on 18 films). The interview was conducted in 1986 for Rainer Gansera’s documentary Working With Truffaut, but only bits were used. Criterion has taken the original footage and edited it into a more complete 15-minute segment. Truffaut himself appears in two archival interviews taken from the French television shows Cinéastes de notre temps (from 1965, in which he discusses shooting the film) and Pour changer étoiles et toiles (from 1982, in which he discusses the process of adapting the source novel). There is also a 17-minute illustrated essay by historian Jeff Smith on the music of composer Georges Delerue, who scored 11 of Truffaut’s films. Another great gem on the disc is a few minutes of Marie Dubois’ screen test, in which Truffaut asks her to curse at him, which she just can’t bring herself to do. The 28-page insert booklet features a new essay by film critic Kent Jones, a reprinted interview with Truffaut, and reprints of Truffaut writing on Aznavour and Dubois

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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