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SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier, Serge Davri, Claude Mansard, Daniel Boulanger, Albert Rémy
Director: François Truffaut
Audio: French monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, trailer, interviews, documentary excerpts, The Music of Georges Delerue featurette, screen test, 28-page booklet
Length: 81 minutes
Release Date: December 6, 2005

"Mind if I play a bit?"

"All right.  But it better be music."

Film ****

The Nouvelle Vague's Boy Wonder, François Truffaut, was still sobering up from the débutante ball that was The 400 Blows when that indelible itch struck again.  An itch to make a new film, but not another Frenchie talkie.  No, Truffaut craved something different, a new angle.  A new world, perhaps.  Maybe...the world of the American gangster.

Abandoning French sensibilities, Truffaut shifted through the crevices of his memories and exhumed David Goodis's Down There.  A novel he had shuffled through once, perhaps more.  It provided the answer, a new film to be flavored with the two-bit colloquial spice of American pulp fiction and set in the milieu of some dreary back alley bistro.

Goodis was a good choice.  He was unpredictable.  His prose trickled along like the jam session of some hack musician with its modulating moods, syncopated rhythms, and those swift tempo changes.  Unpredictable and rebellious himself, Truffaut knew he could bring the words to cinematic life.

Goodis's narrative chump became Truffaut's downtrodden hero, one Charlie Koller, pianist.  Maybe Koller was a respectable musician once, but now, he was a cheap trick, a gag to amuse the regulars at a shifty skid row joint.  But Charlie, he was a stoic one.  Yes, silent, taciturn Charlie, he just improvised nightly on some tuneless upright, living off the indifferent tips of lopsided sots who knew no better than to lighten their wallets on stale beer and loose women.

Not that the women were any better.  Women.  What were they, anyways?  Charlie's dad had told him once, "Seen one woman, seen them all."  Charlie could have learned just as much from a bargain bin novel.  That didn't qualify him to be an expert, either.  Charlie had known at least three women in his life but he was no wiser now than before.  Maybe he'd just never put the right three words together in the correct combination.  Women were like that.  They liked hearing those three little words.

Maybe Boby Lapointe knew something that he could teach Charlie.  Boby liked to sing about women.  Ode to a woman's breasts, raspberries, he named them.  Sweet and tangy poetry, just those vulgar ditties that came to him out of nowhere in song.  If you could call it singing, with those slurred words dribbling out of his mouth and that rocking horse jig of his.  In one minute and out the next, that was Boby, a perpetual lounge singer aspiring to mediocrity and bar room antics.

Who were the women?  There had been Thérésa.  Charlie's poor sweet Thérésa.  She had needed him, but in the end, he wasn't there for her.  Like some wayward sinner to the confessional, she had opened her heart to him, fluttering about her past transgressions.  He saw it in her eyes then, beseeching for some sympathy and forgiveness, but he had been a bastard.  He'd left her, and then, she'd left the world.  Poor Thérésa.

Charlie never really knew her well.  Thérésa had been a lover, his wife, and then someone else's mistress, but she had always been his.  He'd just never appreciated it.  If there was some pity, some remorse in him once, there was none now to give.  No emotion, just the bitter reticence of a man lost and empty himself.  Perhaps they did need each other, but that was done now, and too late.

Now, there was just the bistro.  A la Bonne Franquette.  A soaring name for a dirty dive.  Like the other lost souls, Charlie too could disappear here into oblivion, and no one would even care.  These carrion, dancing and drinking until some late ungodly hour, harvesting that sandpaper texture of men who didn't care if they needed a good shave, these were Charlie's people now.  What did these wasted lives with their slack-eyed and grizzled-chin countenances care about other than ogling the flophouse girls and drowning their private little woes while a pianist tinkered away at some honky-tonk tune?

These were Plyne's people, too.  Plyne was the mug who owned the bar, and the bottom line for him was dollars and cents, not hugs and kisses.  He was the kind that you counted your fingers after shaking hands with, or maybe you rinsed your face whenever he walked through a room.  Sure, that was Plyne.  He could have benefited from a healthy thrashing every now and then, too.  Charlie had a mind to offer him one someday, but Charlie was more bark than bite and then more yap than even bark.  So Charlie just minded his own fingers and those black and white keys, and if Plyne gave him lip, Charlie just took it.  Yes sir, whatever you say sir, he took it, but one day maybe he wouldn't take it anymore.

Clarisse had been Charlie's second woman.  She was something else, a goddess on the dance floor.  When she moved slowly, that silhouette with those soft curves trembling under the hot glow of a flickering light, well she could make a hard impression on any man.  Charlie wanted to despise her and love her at the same time, Clarisse with her painted-on glamour and that hour-glass figure that invited waking dreams.  Like all women who were beautiful and knew it, Clarisse wasn't afraid to flaunt it, back straight, chest forward, a pout on those lips that could but whisper one command and so it would be done.

But maybe Clarisse was too much woman for Charlie.  What he needed, he couldn't define in words.  Something purer, something unfazed.  Something intangible.  Hope.

Maybe the last girl would be the one.  Léna.  Finally the one.  A chance to make good.  Twice bitten but third time lucky, perhaps.  Léna was his gal, his twinkling angel with a mouth like gushing sewage water.  Léna always had a flippant smirk in the corner of her lips just waiting to erupt at any moment, and any Tom, Dick or Harry that smart mouthed at her got his back in return.  With interest.  But Léna was Charlie's.  Or at least, she seemed to fancy Charlie, and that was enough.

Léna was a waitress at the bistro, and if she ever didn't care much for Charlie's playing, at least she was never cruel about it.  Maybe she knew more about him than she let on.  Maybe she understood that Charlie was just another wounded soul looking for salvation at the bottom of a barrel.  She even tolerated his clumsy gestures of intimacy, to a point.  That was the problem with piano players.  They all had these big hands with limber fingers and didn't always know where to put them.

Still, Charlie was doing okay.  That is, until Chico had to re-appear.  Chico was trouble, and misery shadowed him like flies to a big stink.  But Chico was family, too, and that meant whatever muck was dragging Chico down now was Charlie's problem as well.

Chico's dilemma had a name.  Two names.  Ernst and Momo, two Katzenjammer hoods a guy wouldn't want to mess with even in broad daylight.  Parading around in their trench coats and constipated sneers, they were like a pair of hungry prowling cats.  They probably wouldn't think twice to wave some menacing piece in a guy's face or even plug him so he'd never sing again.  Charlie knew better than to tango with this pair.

But maybe Chico didn't, and that was why he'd come crawling now to Charlie.  Charlie, who'd succeeded so admirably at life so far, who lived on the meager charity of lowlifes and rummies.

Ernst and Momo weren't likely to take a No thanks for an answer.  They were a pair of cash-only entrepreneurs, and if the dough wasn't forthcoming, then there was usually only one solution, and it usually ended with someone's guts splattered on the ground.  Extortion, kidnapping first maybe, but the final chapter was always written in blood.  Chico was in the soup for real this time, sure.

If fireworks were on the forecast, Charlie didn't care to get involved, but what could he do?  Blood, as they say, is thicker than water.  If it all had to end in a shoot-out, who'd be the first to go?  Plyne?  Why not?  Maybe the brother?  Please not Léna.  But Charlie?  Nah, why bother with a scarred little scrub like him?  Who would...shoot the piano player?

Video ***

This film was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain print under the supervision of director of photography Raoul Coutard.  Black & white contrast levels are superb with a sparkling clarity of details.  There is little in the way of dust specks or dirt marks.

Coutard used a myriad of tricks, including backwards-running photography and triptych to achieve the film's vibrant and original look, and the video quality of this transfer has preserved the film's cinematography quite well.

Audio ***

Sound was mostly post-synchronized for this film, accounting for the occasional mismatch of lip movement and dialogue.  The monaural quality is decent if not particularly dynamic.  Extraneous clicks and hiss have been removed from the soundtrack.  Coincidentally, Georges Delerue's melancholy score for Shoot the Piano Player was Truffaut's personal favorite of all his films.

Features ****

The tragicomic Shoot the Piano Player is a two-disc set from Criterion.  Disc One contains the film, a theatrical trailer, and a commentary by professors Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf.  Their lively point-counterpoint discussion is quite enjoyable.  Both film scholars acknowledge the parallelism within and many of the motifs and themes of Shoot the Piano Player.  They also discuss the film's merits relative to the rest of Truffaut's works.

Disc Two holds a treasure trove of interviews and rare clips.  As always, watch the film first before diving into these bonus features, as there are several spoilers revealed.

The first interviews are television excerpts with François Truffaut himself commenting on the film and its source novel.  The first excerpt (9 min.) is from a 1965 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps entitled "François Truffaut ou l'esprite critique" in which Truffaut describes his disgust of gangsters, in spite of his love for American gangster films, as best embodied in Shoot the Piano Player.  The second excerpt (12 min.) is from a 1982 episode of Pour changer étoiles et toiles in which Truffaut discusses the process of adapting David Goodis's Down There to the cinema.  Biographical information about the Philadelphia crime author is also provided.

Charles Aznavour may have portrayed a piano player in Truffaut's film, but he was really just a singer and occasional actor.  This and other trivial tidbits are revealed in his interview (24 min.), exclusive to this Criterion release.  Aznavour describes his initial attraction to the role of Charlie, whose shyness was similar to that of the younger Aznavour.  He also reminisces about numerous scenes from the film, including a fight scene in which he was, in his opinion, nearly killed.

Marie Dubois ("Léna") appears in a recent interview (10 min.) in which she discusses her stage name, her audition for the film, and her impressions of Truffaut as a mentor and director.

In his interview segment (13 min.), Raoul Coutard discusses his role as director of photography on Shoot the Piano Player.  The film was to be the first of several successful collaborations with Truffaut.  Coutard's comments unsurprisingly center upon Shoot the Piano Player's cinematography and photographic style.  Coutard is not hesitant either about merrily pointing out some visual gaffs in the film and how they came to be.

The 1986 Suzanne Schiffman interview (15 min.) was originally conducted for a Rainer Ganser documentary about Truffaut, although only a small portion was actually used.  The complete interview is offered here.  Schiffman describes how she first met the young Truffaut in his pre-Cahiers du cinéma days and how her days as script girl on Shoot the Piano Player led to a long and close working collaboration with Truffaut thereafter.  Still photographs from various Truffaut productions (or other New Wave films) accompany Schiffman's remarks.

The Music of Georges Delerue featurette (17 min.) is an audio essay with visual accompaniment consisting of publicity stills, production photographs, and film clips.  Composer Delerue was a frequent collaborator with Truffaut, and this featurette explores the many facets of his musical scores for Truffaut's films, particularly Shoot the Piano Player.

Lastly, the disc concludes with a screen test (3 min.) for coy beauty Claudine Huzé.  Truffaut himself can be heard giving the bemused young actress instructions on a hypothetical situation.  Her reactions are quite charming as Truffaut tries to goad her into cussing him out.  Huzé would later win the role of Léna under the stage name provided to her by Truffaut - Marie Dubois.

Take some time to look over the 28-page booklet, too.  There are several noteworthy essays as well as film and DVD credits.  The first essay, "You'll Laugh, You'll Cry..." by film critic Kent Jones, defends Truffaut to audiences unfamiliar with the auteur's body of work.  Jones relates how the fluid simplicity of Truffaut's films masks their surprising complexity and multiple layers of emotional resonance.  He also explains how Shoot the Piano Player's central character inspired other reticent characters of cinema, from Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to Robert Forster's burnt-out bail bondsman in Jackie Brown.  Jones also describes the premise of the film as a marriage of pulp fiction writer David Goodis's narrative noir style with novelist Raymond Queneau's sense of comic phrasing.

There is also an extensive interview with François Truffaut from 1980 for a book on the film by Peter Brunette.  Truffaut discusses the use of the cinemascope widescreen process and postsynchronization in his first films.  Pertaining to Shoot the Piano Player, he also recalls the development of the script, the casting, and how the adaptation differs from the source novel.  Truffaut even points out minor variations in different versions of the film.

Lastly, comments from Truffaut, as first published in the press book for the film, are included here.  They focus on the film's primary actors Charles Aznavour and Marie Dubois.

Summary:

Gunned down by critics and buried by the viewing public upon its initial release, half a century and countless revisionist reviews later, Shoot the Piano Player can be enjoyed for what it truly is - François Truffaut's homage to the American noir thriller (and even a variant on Hitchcock's Vertigo, too!).  This classic of the New Wave is essential viewing for fans of European cinema!

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