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SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER (Tirez sur le pianiste)(director/writer: François Truffaut; screenwriter: Marcel Moussy/from the novel Down There by David Goodis; cinematographer: Raoul Coutard; editors: Claudine Bouché/Cécile Decugis; music: Georges Delerue; cast: Charles Aznavour (Charlie Kohler/Edouard Saroyan), Marie Dubois (Léna), Nicole Berger (Thérèse Saroyan), Albert Rémy (Chico Saroyan), Claude Mansard (Momo), Daniel Boulanger (Ernest), Michèle Mercier (Clarisse), Richard Kanayan (Fido Saroyan), Jacques Asianian (Richard), Serge Davri (Plyne, bartender); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pierre Braunberger; The Criterion Collection; 1960-France-in French with English subtitles)
“It’s my favorite Truffaut film, not because it’s the best but because it’s the most enjoyable.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Shoot the Piano Player is a striking black-and-white film loosely based on David Goodis’ pulp novel Down There and tells about a sad-eyed honky-tonk cafe piano player in a seedy bar in the outskirts of Paris, who goes by the handle of Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour). He has given up on life after he left behind his adulterous wife (Nicole Berger). She is seen only in flashbacks; it’s revealed she had an affair with hubby’s sleazy impresario, and later hubby finds out it was to advance his career and she’s so upset with hubby’s rejection that she commits suicide. The depressed hubby, Edouard Saroyan, turned his back on his career as a noted classical pianist because of the Greek tragedy.

It’s the quintessential New Wave film and the most nutty and surprisingly the most amusing one François Truffaut (“The Story of Adele H. “/”Jules and Jim”/”The Wild Child”) ever directed, who keeps things oddly lighthearted, funny and sad. It’s my favorite Truffaut film, not because it’s the best but because it’s the most enjoyable. The film pays homage to the Hollywood gangster film, but is also about loneliness, despair, family ties and the love of music.

The piano player, with the help of his former mistress, his neighbor prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), raises his adolescent brother Fido (Richard Kanayan). One day he gets involved with the underworld when he helps his petty-crook brothers, Chico (Albert Rémy) and Richard (Jacques Asianian), who have double-crossed two comically vulgar bad-assed gangsters, Momo and Ernest (Claude Mansard & Daniel Boulanger), over the loot taken during a heist they all were in on. When Charlie’s barmaid girlfriend Léna (Marie Dubois) learns of his true past, she encourages him to give classical music another shot and promises to fully support his decision. But jealous bartender boss (Serge Davri) won’t let her go and ends up killed by Charlie. When the two go on the run, they learn that the gangsters have kidnapped Fido to get at his brothers. The couple join his brothers, only to get caught in a shootout between his brothers and the two gangsters. This results in the accidental death of the barmaid, who takes a stray bullet from the gangsters. When all the dust settles and the cops clear him of the murder of his boss, Charlie returns to the same bar to once again play the piano.

Truffaut playfully mixes together several genres, such as thriller, noir, gangster, romantic melodrama, and comedy with his New Wave filming techniques. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard enhances the mood through skillfully crafted light changes and an active camera, while Truffaut offers dumb visual gags that seem out of place in such a bleak story but strangely have a salutary effect (one gag has a gangster swear that he is telling the truth and proclaim: “If I am lying, may my mother drop dead.” Truffaut immediately cuts to a shot of a frail old woman dropping dead on the floor). Whatever gravitas there is to be gained from such a freewheeling innovative pic, one that makes no pretensions that it has something important to say, comes by way Aznavour’s expressive soulful face, as he lets on how he stumbled so far down and why he never wants to return to his former life.

The film was a commercial failure when first released in France, as the 28-year-old filmmaker’s follow-up to his Cannes-winning debut of The 400 Blows; but when released in the States a few years later, it became an instant arthouse hit and over the years it has grown in status as one of Truffaut’s sure winners.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”