Shoot the Piano Player
February 23, 2006
Filmmaker Francois Truffaut admired the hardboiled romanticism of David Goodis’ 1956 crime novel Down There so much that he decided to adapt it into a film called Shoot the Piano Player (1960), the follow-up to his extremely successful debut, The 400 Blows (1959). It would be one of his five cinematic adaptations of pulp literature.
Charlie (Aznavour) is a mild-mannered piano player wasting his classical training on the café crowd. His brother is a small-time criminal on the run from some unsavoury types that he ripped off. He implores Charlie to help him out but is turned down. When the thugs show up, Charlie delays their pursuit by a few crucial moments, allowing his brother to escape. The two thugs lean on Charlie and apply pressure in order to find out where his sibling his hiding out. Pretty soon his run-ins with them results in murder and kidnapping as his life gets a whole lot more complicated.
As with a lot of Truffaut’s work, there is a strong notion of romanticism that runs throughout the film. Charlie has a crush on a good-looking local waitress named Lena (Dubois) but is unable to muster the courage to say something and see if she feels the same way.
Truffaut plays around with genre conventions, like the scene where the two thugs kidnap Charlie and Lena and they all end up debating the love-hate relationships between men and women. Charlie is certainly not a typical hardboiled protagonist typical of the crime genre. He is a hesitant fellow unable to fully commit to something and is plagued by a lifetime of regrets.
The tonal shifts in Shoot the Piano Player are quite interesting. For example, there is a scene where the two thugs kidnap a child and what could have been a very intense, scary situation is played for laughs when they talk about the pleasures of snuff and one thug shows the boy his musical lighter.
Ultimately, what makes Shoot the Piano Player so distinctive is its playful tone as Truffaut personalizes what is essentially a genre film. He’s not exactly making fun of it but rather adapting it to fit his sensibilities, creating a pastiche if you will. His film is one of the best examples of the French New Wave movement and it is great to see it now a part of the Criterion Collection and given the proper respect it so richly deserves.
The first disc features an audio commentary by Peter Brunette, Reynolds Professor of Film Studies at Wake Forest University and Annette Insdorf, the Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University. She puts Truffaut’s film in a historical context and talks about how it was received by critics at the time (they hated it). They also analyze the film’s themes and talk about it in context with the French New Wave. Brunette and Insdorf also examine the film’s style including such repeating visual motifs as the use of mirrors. This is an informative track by participants who come across as very well-spoken.
Also included is a theatrical trailer.
The second disc contains the bulk of the extras and starts off with two interviews Truffaut did for French T.V. in 1965 and 1982 respectively. He talks about making the movie and his distaste for the gangster genre. He did Piano Player to show his admiration for American cinema. He also talks about what attracted him to Goodis’ book and how he went about adapting it.
There is an interview with the film’s star, Charles Aznavour that was done specifically for this DVD. The actor recalls how he met Truffaut, why he was cast and what it was like working with the man.
Also included is an interview with actress Marie Dubois who talks about how she met Truffaut and how she acquired her screen name. She talks about how much she admired her character and speaks highly of co-star Aznavour.
Raoul Coutard, the film’s cinematographer is interviewed and talks about how he met Truffaut on the set of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Truffaut asked him to work on Piano Player based on the dailies from Godard’s movie. Coutard talks about some of the techniques he employed on Truffaut’s movie.
A real treat for Truffaut fans is a rare interview with his closet collaborator, Suzanne Schiffman, done in 1986. She talks about how she met him and what it was like working with him, including what he was like as a person. She tells many affectionate anecdotes in this delightful extra.
Finally, there is a “Marie Dubois Screen Test” featuring footage of her with Aznavour and then by herself where she answers questions and takes direction from an off-screen Truffaut. The highlight of this footage is a funny bit where the director gets her to swear and talk as filthy as she can but the demure actress can barely get out the word, “asshole.”