When Francois Truffaut’s first feature The 400 Blows made its debut in 1959, critics the world over hailed its low-key semidocumentary style in telling its tale of a troubled, melancholy youth. You can imagine then the confusion these same critics felt the next year when confronted with the French filmmaker’s next work, Shoot the Piano Player. A wild mixture of gangster thriller, slapstick comedy, and bittersweet romance, Shoot the Piano Player was one of the signal works of the French “New Wave,” but it took a while for some critics and audiences to get used to a film that flew in the face of traditional dramatic expectations so broadly and mixed genre elements so freely.
Hailed today as a modern classic, Shoot the Piano Player is a pluperfect example of a film “ahead of its time.” Based on a novel by David Goodis (an American “pulp” writer beloved by the French), it tells of an introverted pianist who after his wife’s suicide (an event for which he holds himself responsible) forgoes a promising concert career to play rinkytink piano in a small-time dive. Thinking himself freed from the horrors of the outside world, he finds himself face to face with them again as his criminal brother and the woman he loves draw him—by different routes—into a web of underworld intrigue. A dire scenario on paper, on screen this same action is transformed by Truffaut into a work that is by turns romantic, suspenseful, and—oddly—uproariously funny. Like Godard’s Breathless it captures perfectly the worldweary alienation and flip cynical humor that were the hallmarks of early sixties filmmaking.
In a way, what makes Shoot the Piano Player so successful is, ironically, the very thing its detractors objected to so strenuously—its masterful mixture of different dramatic tones. In the film’s opening scene, for example (Chapter 1), we’re flung right into the midst of action as the camera follows a running figure being pursued down a street by unseen assailants. Before we’re even told who this man is, we meet someone else—a passerby who collides with the man on the run. The two men talk and we learn the passerby’s story—he’s an ordinary man on his way home to a wife he loves very much. This figure vanishes from the action, never to be seen again. But the tale he tells sets a mood of melancholy regret that is central to everything Shoot the Piano Player is trying to evoke.
This sense of action seen from a slightly off-kilter angle continues in the next scene as we learn of the identity of the running figure—he’s the brother to the film’s hero Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour). Now we’re in the bar where this small, timid man plies his trade—a rowdy place filled with characters out of a Mack Sennett slapstick two-reeler (Chapters 2 and 3). The mood changes again to romance when Charlie discovers Lena (Marie Dubois), the brassy barmaid who loved him from afar (Chapter 4). It goes back again to comedy when the gunmen pursuing Charlie’s brother put the squeeze on Charlie and Lena (Chapter 6). Then the mystery melodrama takes over (Chapters 7 and 8) when a flashback reveals the truth about Charlie and the circumstances that brought him to his withdrawn state.
If you have been following the twists and turns of the film’s rapid mood swings up to this point, you’ll have no trouble following things straight through to the film’s extraordinary finale—a shootout at a mountain cabin right out of High Sierra. But that Humphrey Bogart classic did not feature gunmen who behaved like the Keystone Kops. And it did not sport a visual delicacy suggestive of the finest work of D. W. Griffith.
In the last analysis, Shoot the Piano Player is a completely unique motion picture. From the originality of the audition scene (Chapter 7), where Charlie’s doubts about himself are dramatized with stark visual simplicity (rather than the usual route of verbal monologue), to the tart cheekiness of its many “in” jokes (the watch the gunmen carry plays the theme from Lola Montès), Truffaut teaches us to expect the unexpected. He is helped immeasurably by the performances of Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, and Nicole Berger in the principal roles, with Raoul Coutard’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Georges Delerue’s unforgettable score perfectly complementing the overall atmosphere.
Taking us to the heart of existential anguish, Shoot the Piano Player is never grim. It may show us the dark underside of city life, but it is somehow quite unsordid. Daring to make us laugh at people in decidedly unfunny circumstances, the film manages to catch that laughter in mid-air and overlay it with a sense of sadness—without killing the joke. The story may be simple, then characters easy to comprehend, but an atmosphere of mystery—about people, their lives, their sense of self—remains, making Shoot the Piano Player a film of enduring fascination.