The 400 Blows (1959) became François Truffaut’s great breakthrough, but how do you follow up such a masterpiece? The director considered his first film very French and wanted to create a counterreaction, a movie that was primarily influenced by Hollywood. In an interview at the time, Truffaut said that he didn’t want to make an ”important” film but one that satisfied his ”pleasure”. The critics were divided, but the reputation of Shoot the Piano Player, a New Wave gangster drama, has grown over the years.
Helping his brother
At first, we meet Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy) as he’s running from thugs through the streets of Paris. He ends up in a bar where his brother Edouard (Charles Aznavour) is playing the piano. Edouard helps Chico disappear from his pursuers, but really doesn’t want anything to do with his criminal activities. It takes a while before we learn that his name is Edouard – when we first meet him he’s Charlie Koller, desperately trying to hide from the world, taking care of his much younger brother Fido (Richard Kanayan), and dating Léna (Marie Dubois), a waitress at the bar. Later in the film we learn about his past as a celebrated concert pianist and his marriage to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), which ended in tragedy.
Clashing over the film’s basic concept
Truffaut tried to adapt David Goodis’s novel ”Down There” together with Marcel Moussy, his partner-in-crime from The 400 Blows, but they clashed over the basic concept of the film. Moussy wanted to explain the characters, thereby emphasizing realism, and didn’t understand Truffaut’s attitude; eventually, the director finished the script on his own.
This was not going to be a realistic drama but a gangster movie made in the New Wave style, featuring wild ideas, pulling us in different directions. There are moments when we’re treated to a quick visual gag, or a scene that’s amusing to watch while it lasts but has no other significance (such as a chance encounter that Chico has in the opening of the film), or a music number that may seem more or less pointless. The romance between Edouard and Léna, and the prior arrangement between him and a neighbor who’s also a prostitute, is depicted in a naked way, with jump cuts, dialogue and honesty that seem typical of the New Wave. Near the end of the film, there’s a shoot-out that’s hardly as skilfully staged as in Hollywood, but I’m sure Truffaut and his collaborators thought of it as decidedly non-French.
Aznavour is perfect as Charlie/Edouard, especially since Truffaut’s ambition was to make the male lead weaker than the women; as the singer and actor sits by his piano he exudes an air of sadness and resignation, pretty much telling us to leave him alone. No wonder that Léna feels compelled to lure the real Edouard out of Charlie. Georges Delerue’s music that Charlie is playing is sort of joyless and manic, well suited for a bar where no one’s really listening.
At the premiere of Shoot the Piano Player, many critics complained about the film’s loose structure. Now, many later writers are calling it a masterpiece. I find myself somewhere in the middle, torn between those ingredients that are brilliant and those that feel either silly or empty.
Shoot the Piano Player 1960-France. 81 min. B/W: Widescreen. Produced by Pierre Braunberger. Directed by François Truffaut. Screenplay: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy. Novel: David Goodis (”Down There”). Music: Georges Delerue. Cast: Charles Aznavour (Charlie Koller/Edouard Saroyan), Marie Dubois (Léna), Nicole Berger (Thérèse Saroyan), Michele Mercier, Albert Rémy, Serge Davri.
Trivia: Original title: Tirez sur le pianiste. Released in Britain as Shoot the Pianist.
Last word: “In ‘Piano Player’, I wanted to break free of the unity of ‘The 400 Blows’. When the film is moving in one direction, I intercept it and send it down another route. I wanted to get rid of clichés, glamorous characters, and preconceptions. As soon as one interpretation seems to be taking over, I destroy it, so as to forestall the possibility of any intellectual comfort, both on the part of the spectator, and also of myself.” (Truffaut, “Truffaut on Cinema”)