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Old School Review: "Shoot The Piano Player" (1960)

*As this film is sixty years old, there will be spoilers.*

Written and directed by François Truffaut, “Shoot The Piano Player” is an adaption of the noir novel “Down There” by David Goodis. Ironically, this was Truffaut’s 2nd film after “The 400 Blows” and the second film of his I’ve seen (The first being “Breathless” which is also reviewed on this blog). This film has heartened me to the infamous French ‘New Wave’ filmmaker far more than “Breathless” did, which isn’t to say that I disliked that film, “Shoot The Piano Player” simply kept my attention far easier. Perhaps this is due to Truffaut wanting to showcase the influence American films had on his work, or because of it’s non-linear story structure that reveals character development and evolution through elaborate flashbacks. Either way, I rather enjoyed this film by Truffaut.

The film opens with a man in a trenchcoat being pursued for unknown reasons through the streets of Paris at night. We get a short conversation between the man and a stranger who’s helped him off his feet after a short tumble. They stride in a casual pace and ponder the intricacies of love and marriage before the stranger turns off another street and our focus rips back into a hurried flurry as our man enters a small, dingy, jazz bar filled with dancing patrons. There we discover that the man we’ve followed here is Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), brother of the pianist Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), who is irked when Chico flippantly calls him Edouard in a teasing manner. Chico’s on the run from a couple of gangsters that he’d scammed out of their share of a heist, and they’re onto him. He pleads for Charlie’s help, but Charlie’s uninterested- he left his family behind awhile ago- but he still stalls the two thugs when they barge into the bar anyways. Eventually the two gangsters track down Charlie and the waitress Léna (Marie Dubois) from the bar, as they saw him with her later that night, and they nab both off the street at gunpoint. They escape with the help of an inquiring police officer and flee before the film takes a huge flashback that encompasses (what feels like) most of the second act. Léna then takes Charlie back to her apartment to hide out where she reveals that she always knew of his past as Edouard Saroyan, famous piano player that sold out concert halls all over Paris.

We’re then treated to a lengthy deep dive into Edouard’s past as he began practicing piano, courted a waitress, Thérèse (Nicole Berger), at a local diner and eventually married her before he got famous as a world class performer. Eventually they grow apart with the wealth and fame going to Edouard’s head as they continually fight over seemingly trivial issues that are actually clues to the much deeper issues growing between them. A few surprising reveals later and we discover the source of Edouard’s inner sadness and general melancholy towards the world around him before cutting back to the present. After they decide to quit the bar life Edouard and Léna work towards rescuing Fido (Richard Kanayan) the youngest Saroyan brother from the two gangsters. Unfortunately for them, Plyne (Serge Davri) the lummox tending the bar, has become enraged at Edouard’s advances toward Léna. A fight then breaks out between them that ends in the back alley with Edouard stabbing a knife into Plyne’s back! Though Edouard had tried to stop the fight, Plyne would not yield- the women had seen him take up such a cause and he was committed to finishing it, quite the bad luck. Thus, with blood on his hands, Edouard decides to head out to the old Saroyan farmhouse with Chico and Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), the eldest Saroyan brother. It’s not long before the two gangstera arrive with Fido in tow to confront Chico and retrieve their portion of the stolen money. There’s a shootout in the snow and everything essentially gets resolved with Léna informing Edouard that the police absolved him of his crimes as multiple neighbors had seen him try to stop Plyne in the fight. It was self defense after all. Unfortunately, Léna got caught in the ensuing crossfire and didn’t make it back to Paris. Fido was reunited with his brothers though. The film ends with Edouard returning to that same dingy dive bar and sitting back down at his crummy piano to play once more, while staring blankly into space as the film fades out.

This film had a more playful edge than “Breathless”, despite carrying heavier plot points overall, but I believe this helped to buoy the film more evenly as a whole. You can definitely see the influence of American Noir films here in Truffaut’s second film, but more specifically you can feel the presence of Alfred Hitchcock clearly and knowingly. So while this is most certainly a French film in the 1960s (Multiple instances of smoking in bed, sensations of nihilism sparking into poetic manifestos before swinging back into nonchalance, and a very loose and undefinable playfulness when concerned with intimacy and sexuality), you can rest assured that the film has a destination at the end, with a more focused narrative- which might just be preference- but it worked for me! Check this one out if you can.

Final Score: 2 Gangsters

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Old School Review: “Breathless” (1960)

Written by François Truffaut and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, “Breathless” is a classic French crime film that helped to form the New Wave style of films coming from French filmmakers at that time. The story centers on Michel Poiccard, (Jean-Paul Belmondo) a petty thief in Paris who frequently steals cars for joyrides and pickpockets cash from unsuspecting pedestrians. He reunites with an American girl, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg), who’s studying to become a journalist after he impulsively murders a police officer on one of his more casual grand theft autos in the countryside just outside of Paris. Most of the film is spent following these two in the streets of Paris, in cafes and hotels, almost always smoking while they discuss many aspects of life with whimsy through their opinions and fluttery definitions about everything from the opposite sexes to how one should drive while behind the wheel.

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Now, admittedly, I wasn’t a gigantic fan of this film after giving it a watch, but I had to know what made it so renowned and gilded among cinephiles. Given the year the film was made I was surprised at the speed and abrupt use of jump-cuts in the film’s editing. However that didn’t seem enough to make it supposedly legendary, so I did some reading on the movie. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s in France were a rebellious era of filmmaking characterized by a coup of sorts against the established narrative form in French cinema. These new French filmmakers broke away from any sense of a studio system and shot their independent features on shoestring budgets, often without permission on locations, and usually focusing on characters that weren’t natural protagonists by the standard definitions. As for “Breathless” itself, filming took place anywhere between 15 minutes to 12 hours depending on what Godard had come up with that day. They filmed in Paris in stores and cafes mostly without being granted access in order to secure the spontaneous feel in the film that Godard was going for. There was a considerable amount of improvisation and Godard reportedly kept his journal of dialogue close and only shared what he believed to be necessary.

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In today’s world, the film may not seem all that special, but it did a lot to give independent filmmakers an origin, somebody had to be the first to get their shots without the permission from the gatekeepers, right? Indie film cred aside, the film may harbor some resentment from modern audiences for its characters’ opinions. I suspect that many American audiences today could be triggered by the subjects that the characters discuss and how they go about discussing them. To be fair, the perspective is from an entirely different culture and from a generation and a half ago. As we’re still very much embroiled in the #MeToo movement here in America, everything is still tender. Simply talking about sexuality and the roles of women and men in life and the workplace can be a careful tap-dance of attempting to recognize and listen to every person’s point of view, let alone expressing the viewpoints that this film does. The French culture approaches these topics in a fairly different manner, but especially so in the 1960’s, in a post war Paris, and given that the New Wave movement was focused on morally ambiguous characters to stand aside from the greater film structures of the time- so there’s a lot to dissect given all of the variables in play.

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The film does have it’s place in celluloid history, but I wouldn’t say that its the most entertaining film out there. Which is fine, not every story works for every audience. I’d have to see more from the New Wave directors before making a final opinion on the select era and group of filmmakers’ work, but the making of this film was more interesting to me than the final product. Surprised by the international praise of the film, Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t regret making the film because they defied the power structures of the filmmaking process and he was glad that they had thrown all that aside and opened the process up. In the end, I’m glad I gave it a watch, another film can be checked off my list and my perspective widens because of it.

Final Score: 100 cigarettes and 50 cups of coffee