Film Review #119: Shoot the Piano Player
Director: Francois Truffaut
Cast: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Albert Rémy
There’s the sound of frantic running in the dark on pavement. A car’s headlights and gunning engine chasing someone. Suddenly this guy runs right into a street lamp, knocks him out cold, and another guy, shifting an armful of roses, helps him up. And so these two strangers stroll for a bit, discussing marriage and how the rose-carrier finally fell in love with his wife. They part, and the chase resumes. Later on, two thugs will kidnap a boy and, side-tracked in their enthusiasm for gadgets, drop their stern demeanor to brag about air-conditioned hats and such, but by then we’re used to impromptu chats and fanciful insertions.
Before Bonnie and Clyde, there was a little French film called Shoot the Piano Player. Bonnie and Clyde’s 40th anniversary earlier this month has caused a flurry of film magazine and newspaper movie-page comment about that 1967 film. Based loosely on the exploits of notorious bank-robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who ranged across the Midwest prairies during the Great Depression, Bonnie and Clyde remains a landmark in US film-making, both for its controversy and adoption of new film techniques. In the title roles, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are attractive, witty and, like their real-life counterparts, derided banks as institutions of the rich that stole the money and land of ordinary working people. Like their real-life counterparts, the celluloid duo courted media coverage as folk heroes. Further, Bonnie and Clyde depicted violence more graphically than US film had done before, even in the 1903’s-era B gangster movies it fondly recalled, both with the ending’s shockingly prolonged execution and a number of shots directly in people’s faces during the story. For the first time, a US film used “squibs,” tiny explosive charges, attached to bags of red paint, which detonated to simulate gun-shot wounds as they occurred.
Bonnie and Clyde also adopted story-telling techniques from French “new wave” filmmakers working a bit earlier that decade – sudden shifts in tone from comic scenes to extreme violence, jump cuts and chopping editing – that were disconcerting then because they broke down storylines and barriers between art and real life. Tapping Arthur Penn for director certainly worked out – besides the film’s immediate and durable popularity, its showing at the Oscars was immense – but star-and-producer Warren Beatty’s first choice had been François Truffaut. This was largely based on Truffaut’s 1960 film, Shoot the Piano Player, itself a tribute to US 1930s gangster films and an adaptation of a 1950’s American pulp fiction novel by David Goodis, Down There.
Shoot the Piano Player was only Truffaut’s second feature, released a year after The 400 Blows. Not well-received initially, it didn’t open in the US until mid-1962, carried on the wave of his third feature, Jules and Jim. Before his death in 1984, the man who made those three films in his first three years also made films like Fahrenheit 451, Mississippi Mermaid, the five Antoine Doinel films (starring Jean-Pierre Leaud) and my personal favorites, Day For Night (1973) and The Story of Adele H (1975). But in his essay for Criterion's 2-disc set in 2005, Kent Jones has called Shoot the Piano Player – at 84 minutes, Truffaut was already getting the job done fast – “the skeleton key” to all Truffuat’s work. Despite that set’s feast of bonus interviews and commentary, the movie’s eminently watchable more than once all by itself.
It’s a wisp of a story. A sad-eyed, very private Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), is playing honky-tonk piano in a bar, far from the tuxedoed concerts of his career as Édouard Saroyan. He’s raising a younger brother, and getting more than eyed by both the golden-hearted prostitute who lives next door, Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), and the barmaid Léna (Marie Dubois). Like the actor who plays him, who’s known mostly to Americans for his singing, Charlie comes from an Armenian-French clan. His older brothers, Chico (Albert Rémy) and Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), hide “like wolves” at a remote farm between badly botched hold-ups. Charlie wants out of their scrapes and hasn’t seen them in four years when Chico – he of the lamp post – pursued by two thugs he’s double-crossed, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), bursts into the bar. When Chico escapes, the thugs pursue Charlie, then Léna, kidnap Charlie’s little brother, and in various vehicles all head through the winter night to a showdown at the farm.
An old poster from his concert years in Léna’s room prompts Charlie’s flashback of his career and its costs – the suicide of his wife Thérèse (Nicole Berger) – and he shares this with Léna. In a scene that surely influenced another, later film – Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), also starring Beatty – the thugs stalk those hiding inside the peaceful, snow-covered Saroyan farm, then spot Léna running through the forest and shoot her, so that her snow-covered face is where the camera comes to rest.
Along the way, Truffaut has embedded rich, sometimes earthy discussions about relations between the sexes along with comic escapades in wildly unlikely spots, Charlie’s regret, tender romance, and the cost of fame and guilt and family loyalty. Vintage stuff.
This review appeared in the 8/23/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films without a theatrical run in CNY & older films of enduring worth.