Shoot the Piano Player(Criterion Collection, 12.6. 2005)
The French New Wave directors revolutionized filmmaking in the late fifties and early sixties by ignoring many of the conventional narrative and stylistic techniques while inventing new ones. Films such as Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows brought a new energy and self-consciousness to the cinema. These films were as much about movies as about real life and showed how much life is influenced by the movies, as with Jean Paul Belmondo's attempts to emulate Bogart in Breathless.
After the grittily realistic, autobiographical The 400 Blows, Truffaut did not want to repeat himself and decided, in the spirit of Breathless, for which he wrote the original story, to pay tribute to the American crime films of the '40s and '50s that he adored so much. So he turned to "Down There," a novel by David Goodis, whose works had already served as the basis of Delmer Daves underrated noir Dark Passage and Jacques Tourner's Nightfall, said to have been a partial inspiration for Pulp Fiction. Truffaut was not even the first French director to adapt Goodis, following Pierre Chenal's 1956 Of Missing Persons.
Shoot the Piano Player is the story of Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour), who plays piano in a jazz club. Two gangsters are after Charlie's older brother, Chico (Albert Remy), and the passive Charlie becomes involved as well. Truffaut displays his unconventional approach at the very beginning as Chico falls while fleeing the thugs, and when a passerby helps him up, they launch into a long conversation about marriage. When the bad guys later kidnap the youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), the boy also engages in banter having nothing to do with his situation.
The film also depicts Charlie's relations with Lena (Marie Dubois), a waitress at the club, Clarisse (Michele Mercier), a prostitute, and Therese (Nicole Berger), his wife when he was the concert pianist Edouard Saroyan (named in honor of the American writer William Saroyan). The story of how Edouard became Charlie is told in a flashback. Aznavour, often called the French Sinatra because of his equal fame as both singer and actor, wonderfully conveys the moral qualms of this existential hero. Aznavour was cast in part because of his resemblance to Truffaut.
Several qualities help define Shoot the Piano Player as a New Wave film, including the use of iris shots to show Truffaut's debt to silent films. When Charlie enters an office, the camera follows a young woman out of the building simply because she is pretty. Even more typical is a shot of Fido entering a building with some milk and then dropping it onto the windshield of the hoodlums' car from an upper floor a second later, skipping over the real time it would have taken the boy to get to the window.
Such qualities are analyzed in the commentary by Truffaut experts Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf, who also discuss the influence of Citizen Kane, Nicholas Ray, and Sam Fuller, as well as the film's influence on Arthur Penn, Jonathan Demme, and Quentin Tarantino. The relaxed commentary is conversational yet informative, though Insdorf implies incorrectly that Shoot the Piano Player was considered a failure until the '90s. Neither commentator seems aware that Elmore Leonard pays homage to the film by naming a minor character in Get Shorty after Momo, one of the gangsters.
Criterion's extras are even better than usual. We get 1965 and 1982 interviews with Truffaut, Dubois' screen test, in which the director has to force her to curse, recent interviews with Aznavour, Dubois, and cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who supervised the excellent transfer of the black-and-white CinemaScope images), a 1986 interview with Suzanne Schiffman (who worked with Truffaut as script girl, assistant director, and screenwriter), a short film about the music by Georges Delerue (who composed the first of eleven scores for Truffaut for this film), and a 28-page booklet featuring an overview by critic Ken Jones and a 1980 interview with the director.
This splendid package is essential for anyone interested in the New Wave or the cross-fertilization of American and French films. -- Michael Adams