Written by: Nick Frame on January 8th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: France, 1960
Director: François Truffaut
Cast: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michele Mercier, Serge Davri, Claude Mansard, Daniel Boulanger, Richard Kanayan
DVD released: December 2005
Approximate running time: 81 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: French Dolby Digital Mono
DVD Release: Criterion
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $39.95
“Shoot the Piano Player” was Truffaut’s follow up to his superb directorial debut “The 400 Blows” and it’s one his best but also one of his most overlooked and underrated. It was a bit of a departure for him as he wanted to show his love of American cinema in his second film as he had felt that “The 400 Blows” had been too French.
Adapted from the pulp noir novel “Down There” by David Goodis, “Shoot the Piano Player” has no central theme but veers from noir to comedy to tragedy and then back round again, yet it works extremely well and we care what happens to the central characters and what fate awaits them.
Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) plays the titular pianist and we are introduced to him in a seedy bar in downtown Paris playing dance numbers for the regulars. However, his brother Chico (Albert Remy) decides to pay him a visit one evening as he is on the run from two gangsters, Earnest (Daniel Boulanger) and Momo (Claude Monsard) who wish to do more than just talk to him. His brother later leaves and Charlie finishes up for the evening and walks home with the pretty barmaid Lena (Marie Dubois). As they walk home together with Charlie ruminating on whether she likes him or not, they are at the same time being followed by the two gangsters who are after his brother. They manage to give them the slip and continue walking with Charlie constantly thinking about Lena but by the time he thinks of something, anything to say, he turns but alas she is gone. Unperturbed though, he goes home and sleeps with the prostitute next door, Clarisse (Michele Mercier, who in my opinion is superb despite having little screen time) without his brother Fido (Richard Kanayan), asleep in the next room finding out. The next morning on his way to work he is forced into the gangster’s car at gunpoint and they head to Lena’s apartment and they are both taken for a ride. Fortunately some bad driving by the bumbling gangsters is noticed by a policeman so Charlie and Lena make their escape and head back to her flat. It’s here that Charlie and Lena explore their attraction for each other a little more and it is also where we learn that there is more to Charlie Kohler than we first thought. However the two gangsters are not going to give up easily and they have more in store for Charlie.
Shoot the Piano Player is a charming film that succeeds in the most part due to the elements of tragedy and comedy that crop up during the film. For example during the kidnap of Charlie and Lena , a tense scene, one of the gangsters swears on his mothers life about something, straight away the scene cuts to his mother dropping dead, so unexpected and straight out of leftfield. Another is where Charlie is almost anticipating Woody Allen as he amusingly agonises over Lena during the walk home and yet when he finally decides to speak, she’s gone. Charles Aznavour’s performance as Charlie is another reason for its success, as his character is as the liner notes state a bit of a bastard (highlighted for me by the thoughts over Lena while walking her home, yet he sleeps with the prostitute, Clarisse not 10 minutes later), but somehow we feel for him and hopeful of his growing relationship with Lena. New York film critic Kent Jones commented on Truffaut that “…it was the image of Aznavour in the lead…that turned all the lights green for him.” That is, Truffaut saw something of himself in Aznavour and it is this that spurred him to make the film rather than a single image from Goodis’s novel as he has previously stated. Personally I tend to agree with Kent Jones as having watched the interviews with Truffaut, his likeness and manner compared to Aznavour is at times uncanny.
Presented in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio and shot in Dyaliscope rather than Cinemascope, it looks great and it should as Criterion got original cinematographer Raoul Coutard to supervise the restoration. Overall it is a very strong black and white image with no real flaws except at the beginning where there is some flicker that is noticeable but disappears quickly and is not too distracting.
Audio quality as well is excellent in the form of the original French Mono (with new and improved English subtitles), it’s nice and clear and the score by George Delerue comes across beautifully.
Extras as you would expect from Criterion are plentiful and spread across 2 discs.
Disc 1 has in addition to the movie, an audio commentary by film scholars Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf (both experts on Truffaut, with Brunette editing a book on Shoot the Piano Player and Insdorf authoring one about Truffaut himself) and the original theatrical trailer.
Disc 2 has two interviews with Truffaut from French TV, the first being from “Cineastes du notre temps” (9mins) in 1965 where he talks about the film and the second from 1982 program “Pour changer etoiles and toiles” (12mins) whereby he discusses the original novel by David Goodis.
Next are new video interviews recorded in 2005 with actors Charles Aznavour (24mins) and Marie Dubois (10mins) and also director of photography Raoul Coutard (14mins) recorded in 2003.
Also included is a rare interview with Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman (15mins) that was originally intended for the documentary “Working with Truffaut” by Rainer Gansera, but only a few minutes were used and Criterion got the rights and edited together this interview.
An audio essay has also been put together on George Delerue (15mins), who was one of French Cinema’s most celebrated composers and who worked eleven times with Truffaut.
Also included is Marie Dubois’s screen test (5mins).
There is a 28 page booklet included as well with thoughts from film critic Kent Jones and an interview with Truffaut and his thought on Aznavour and Dubois.
The film moves along at a nice pace and even though there are periods where very little occurs, we cannot take our eyes from the screen in case something is missed. Even at just 81 minutes, it feels longer than it is as there is so much to take in and admire. I am very fond of “Shoot the Piano Player”, a beautiful film with elements of Hollywood and French New Wave coupled with some great performances. Add to this Criterions usual care and attention to classic cinema and you have a complete package. Highly Recommended!
For more information about Shoot the Piano Player and other titles released by Criterion visit their website.