SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER
Review by Ed Nguyen
Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier, Serge Davri,
Claude Mansard, Daniel Boulanger, Albert Rémy
Director: François Truffaut
Audio: French monaural
Video: Black & white, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen
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
if I play a bit?"
right. But it better be music."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
maybe Clarisse was too much woman for Charlie.
What he needed, he couldn't define in words. Something purer, something unfazed. Something intangible. Hope.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.