film

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