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Shoot the Piano Player  
Francois Truffaut
1960 || 92 mins

Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) is the resident piano player in a cheap Paris cafe, but he was once Edouard Saroyan, an acclaimed classical pianist married to a beautiful wife, Thérèse (Nicole Barger). One night, Charlie’s criminal brother Chico (Albert Remy) comes into the cafe asking for help. He and another brother, Richard, have double-crossed a pair of crooks, Momo and Ernest, over the proceeds of a robbery, and now they want payback. Charlie is reluctant to get involved but instinctively helps his brother escape when his pursuers come looking for him. Later that night Charlie walks home with Lena (Marie Dubois), a waitress at the bar who is in love with him, but he is too shy to make a move on her.

The next day, the pair of crooks pick Charlie and Lena up in the car, but they escape. Returning to Lena’s flat, Charlie recounts the story of his tragic past. Determined to give up their jobs and start a new life together, the couple return to the bar, where Charlie gets in a fight with the jealous bar owner and accidentally kills him. Meanwhile, Charlie’s younger brother, Fido, is kidnapped by Momo and Ernest. Recognising that he can no longer escape his past, Charlie returns to his brother’s hideout in the mountains. When the crooks arrive a shoot out ensues with fatal consequences.

see also articles on:
Top 10 Truffaut Movies || Francois Truffaut Profile|| French New Wave History || French New Wave Film Guide

Following the success of Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), Francois Truffaut had become famous, yet he wasn’t afraid to say that the acclaim of the general public (those who only went to the cinema one or twice a year) meant little to him. He decided that his next film would be something completely different. Like Godard with A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), he wanted to make a homage to the American B-movie thrillers he had grown up watching in the cinema and which had had such an impact on him. It would be a film for the film buffs, full of in-jokes and allusions that his friends at cahiers du cinéma would recognise. It would be the kind of film he wanted to make, rather than the one the public expected of him.

He found the story he was looking for in a novel called Down There by the American pulp writer, David Goodis. The material appealed to him on several levels. There was an almost fairy-tale like quality to the narrative but in this case filtered through a dark noir lens. It dealt with tender romance and desperate tragedy, but also had gangsters conversing about everyday life. Most appealing for Truffaut was the character of Charlie the pianist, a shy hesitant man, haunted by the past An artist who feels he compromised himself to achieve success, not unlike the director himself. Played brilliantly by Charles Aznavour in the film, Charlie is a classic noir anti-hero – a fatalistic loner who habitually acts against his own better judgement and seems to attract tragedy like a magnet.

While maintaining the dark and dramatic atmosphere of the book, Truffaut plays free and loose with genre conventions, consistently undermining our expectations and abruptly changing pace and tone without warning. In the opening sequence we see Chico running for his life through the city streets at night. Shots flash by in a rapid blur in near darkness or the glare of harsh street lighting. Then, abruptly the mood changes, a passer-by helps the dazed Chico to his feet. A long continuous tracking shot follows as they walk along the street discussing the benefits of love and marriage. This playful approach continues through the rest of the picture. The iconography of the musical, western, romance and melodrama genres feature briefly, interrupting the conventional crime story narrative. Abundant comic touches in particular distinguish the film from its source material and other films of the same genre. The hoodlums are portrayed more like the Marx brothers than real tough guys, endlessly discussing and arguing about subjects such as women’s secret desires. In one famous scene one of the gangsters proclaims “May my mother drop dead if I tell a lie” which is immediately followed by a shot of an old woman clutching her heart and collapsing.

Tirez sur le pianiste was released in 1961. French critics were disappointed, finding it frivolous and disjointed in contrast to Les Quartre cents coups. It fared better abroad, especially in New York, where, after the success of Jules and Jim, it played at the same art house cinema on heavy rotation for years in the mid-60s and was cited by Bob Dylan in the Times Thay Are A-Changin’ liner notes. Fifty years after it was made, the film remains as exuberant, surprising, funny and touching as it did when first released. It is perhaps the most quintessentially New Wave of all Truffaut’s films, as revolutionary and original as Godard’s Breathless and equally influential on later film-makers. Its combination of noir aesthetics, doomed romanticism, poignant music and wacky comedy still make for an intoxicating cinematic cocktail.

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