“Shoot the Piano Player” - François Truffaut (1960)

François  Truffaut’s first feature film, the semi-autobiographical The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959), was a big hit for the former film critic and auteur-theory advocate. But his second feature, Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste, 1960) did not meet the elevated expectations of the public or the critics, even though it stands today as one of the iconic French “New Wave” (La Nouvelle Vague) works.  Crafted as a mixture of comedy, romance, and film noir, the film was considered by many to be an artificial pastiche of homages and in-jokes that just didn’t add up to a coherent artwork.  Others, however, loved the film, sometimes without being able to explain why.  I am one of those who hold the film in high esteem, despite some evident flaws, and I will try to argue a case for it.

Truffaut later admitted that he was consciously trying to chart a new artistic direction with Shoot the Piano Player, in an attempt to avoid potential autobiographical typecasting arising from The 400 Blows. By making a film of an expanded narrative based on American crime writer David Goodis’s novel Down There (1956), he apparently wanted  to move away from the personal context and display his sympathies for the American films noir of the 1940s and 50s – and also perhaps demonstrate a full panoply (or at least try out a number) of cinematic techniques along the way.  Nevertheless, I feel that Shoot the Piano Player still lies in the personal psychological space of Truffaut.  Evidence for this can be seen in the fact that Truffaut modified the personality of the protagonist away from the confident and authoritative one fashioned by Goodis in the novel to a more introverted personality like Truffaut’s own.  Thus despite the stark contrasts in external trappings between these two early films, Shoot the Piano Player is still very much of a personal and existential journey like that of The 400 Blows.

To me, the main theme of Shoot the Piano Player concerns how a man enters into and establishes the most significant personal relationship in his life – the one with that woman with whom he seeks the deepest connection. This is explored here by presenting events that cast light on the internal mental landscape of the main character, Edouard Saroyan (aka Charles Kohler).  This role was played by the famous French singer and songwriter Charles Aznavour, although he doesn’t sing in this film. It is interesting, by the way, that the main character’s name indicates that he is an Armenian, which is also Aznavour’s own ethnicity (his real name is Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian) [1].

One of the striking aspects of the film is its rapid narrative movement.  The version of the film that I saw recently was only 81 minutes in length, but a lot of narrative ground is covered over that relatively short stretch.  In particular there are five narrative threads of interest, each of which represents a different “world” (sphere) of concern for, and reflects a different aspect of, the main character, Charles.  For the purposes of clarity, I identify these threads as follows:
CF: Charlie’s world at the piano bar where he works and lives nearby.
CB: Charlie’s world with his two older brothers.
CW: Charlie’s world with his wife Therese
CL: Charlie’s world with Léna
CT: Charlie’s world with the two criminal thugs, Momo and Ernest
These various narrative threads are presented in ten unequally-lengthed sections .
1.  Prologue (CB)
At the outset we see a man, who we will later learn is Charlie’s brother Chico Saroyan, running through dark city streets in a desperate effort to escape some pursuers.  In his frenzy, he crashes into a lamp post and falls down.  A passerby helps him to his feet.  The two strangers now cordially engage in a discussion of what will be the film’s principal theme: what is it about women that make men love them.   The passerby explains his love for his wife and why it grew gradually over time.  Then he disappears into the night and from the rest of the story.

2.  At Charlie’s Piano Bar (CB, CF)
Chico finds the piano bar where his brother Charlie works, and he runs in to hide from his pursuers. Charlie is a tight-lipped piano player who entertains the dancing customers with his playing.  Although Charlie hasn’t seen his brother in four years, he is familiar with his usually criminal activities and doesn’t want to have anything to do with him.  When two thugs pursuing Chico show up, however, Charlie reluctantly does help Chico escape out the back door.  In this section we are introduced to Charlie’s introspections in voiceover, and on this occasion he reflects on his ambivalent feelings for his dumb and troublesome but upbeat brother.

This section, by the way, also features a bizarre singing performance of a witless and boring song, “Framboise”. The reasons for why Truffaut included it in the film escape me. It is apparently supposed to be funny, but it takes up a full two minutes of this 81-minute film and is merely a distraction.  Later on in the film there will be another disruptive, time-wasting song that takes up a further minute-and-a-half of screen time for no reason.  Anyway, this section does show, at least, life at the piano bar, and we are introduced to the proprietor, Plyne.

3.  Charlie with Léna 1 (CL)
At the piano bar Charlie is informed by Plyne that the pretty waitress Léna (Marie Dubois) likes him. Plyne confesses to Charlie that he moons after Léna, himself, but that he doesn’t have enough class for her.  Charlie is interested, too, and walks Léna home, but his shy, introverted nature holds him back from making any romantic moves on her, and the opportunity is lost.  During the walk home, Léna sees the two thugs (Ernest and Momo) in her hand mirror, and she and Charlie manage to run around the corner and escape their pursuers.

4.  Charlie at his flat (CF)
Back at his apartment, we see that Charlie lives with his younger brother, Fido (played by Richard Kanayan, also an Armenian), who is a young schoolboy. Charlie tucks the boy into his bed for the night, and then welcomes into his own bed his voluptuous neighbor, Clarisse, a hooker who frequents the piano bar for her clients.  From this scene it is evident that Charlie is not so shy and inexperienced as he might have at first appeared.

5.  Ride with the Thugs (CT, CL)
The next day Fido goes off to school, and when Charlie goes out, he is confronted by the two thugs who force him into their car at gunpoint and shortly thereafter do the same thing to Léna, who was also walking nearby.  The thugs, who are still after Chico for some past debts they think are owed them, want Charlie and Léna to lead them to him – and they found out where they live by bribing the bar proprietor Plyne. This is an odd scene, because what starts out as sinister soon degenerates into jocular wisecracks between the four people riding around in the car.  Again there is a conversation about women – this time it concerns the thugs’ attitudes about women and why they cannot resist their charms.  By happenstance, though, the car is stopped at a police checkpoint, and Charlie and Léna escape while the police are questioning the two thugs.

6.  Charlie’s Past (CL, CW)
Charlie again walks Léna home, and this time she invites him up to her apartment.  It is now revealed to the viewer what Léna has known all along: that Charlie was once a famous concert pianist named Edouard Saroyan.  She wants to know why he is now using a different name and performing in a dive like the piano bar where she works.  The film then goes into a 17-minute flashback covering Charlie’s account of his past.
The Flashback:
Charlie/Edouard was married to a comely young woman, Therese, and struggling to come up in the world as a pianist. By chance, it seems, he meets a concert impresario who hires him to perform, and soon Edouard is famous. But later Edouard learns that his big break was brought about by Therese’s self-sacrificing submission to the impresario’s lustful demands, in an effort to advance her husband’s career. The resulting shame and Edouard’s jealous reactions led to Therese’s suicide, which utterly shattered Edouard’s life. Blaming himself for her death, he abandoned his promising career, disappeared from view, and changed his name to Charlie Kohler.
7.  Charlie with Léna 2 (CL)
The next section is really a continuation of the previous one, but since it is the highpoint of the film, it deserves its own status.  By this point in the story it is clear that Charlie has three miseries weighing on him: 
  • his traumatic memories and guilt associated with his lost love, Therese
  • his problems with the two thugs pursuing him (and Chico)
  • his crummy life at the piano bar.

But Léna has fallen in love with him and is intent on solving all three problems.  There is now a visually lyrical scene showing her embracing and kissing him.  In her bed, she does all the talking, saying sweet romantic things to him while she caresses him.  This scene makes up for all of Truffaut’s (and cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s) other experimental misfires, and it features my most memorable images of the film.  Léna is determined that her love will revive the old Edouard Saroyan and restore him – to a happy union with her.

The next two sections of the film (8 and 9) are run in parallel, with intercutting scenes.

8.  Fido and the Thugs (CT)
The thugs now kidnap Fido from Charlie’s apartment and force him into their car.  They are still trying to find someone to lead them to Chico.  Again, these scenes with the two thugs show them engaging in small talk and telling jokes, making them appear human, even if they are desperately reckless.

9.  Léna and Charlie at the Piano Bar (CL, CF)

Léna takes Charlie back to the piano bar so that they can both resign their jobs.  But she is bitter about Plyne’s selfish betrayal to the thugs, so she mercilessly taunts Plyne.  Charlie sees that Léna’s taunts are too rough on the simple-minded and still moonstruck Plyne, but he says nothing, thinking to himself, “it’s none of your business. . . . nothing is.”  But Léna keeps at it. Pllyne, who says he worships women as angels, can't believe that Léna could act this way. Finally he goes lethally berserk and attacks Charlie in a blind rage. In the ensuing fight, Charllie accidentally kills Plyne, and barely survives, himself.  Now Charlie has another problem: the police will charge him with murder. 

But Léna whisks Charlie away from the investigating police and drives Charlie up into the mountains where his two brothers, Chico and Richard live.  At the same time, the thugs and their hostage Fido are also headed for the same place.

10.  Charlie at the Saroyan house (CL, CT, CB)
The climactic scene takes place at the snowbound Saroyan residence, where Léna, Charlie, his three brothers (Chico, Richard, and Fido), and the two thugs (Momo and Ernest) all converge.  Léna, fueled by her burning love for Charlie/Edouard, has solved all the problems up to this point, and she appears to have solved things here, too.  But not quite.  You’ll have to see the film to learn what happens in the end.
Truffaut and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who was a favorite of both Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard) tried a number of film techniques in Shoot the Piano Player, and not all of them worked. But enough of them did work to result in an outstanding film that simultaneously conveys tension, vulnerability, and melancholy. All the characters, including Plyne and the two thugs, are human and almost innocent despite their violent recklessness.  This reflected a perhaps resigned, almost fatalistic, view of humanity – that each of us is just a captive of his or her own circumstances and no more or less deserving or guilty than anyone else.

For various reasons Truffaut chose to shoot in Cinemascope, and the wide-screen compositions actually contribute to a kind of expressionistic circumscription that adds to the mood. Truffaut used several mirror shots (i.e. images shown that include mirror reflections [2]) to good effect – some of them highly unrealistic but evocative nonetheless.  One example was when Léna espied the two thugs in her hand mirror when she was walking with Charlie.

The kissing scene between Léna and Charlie featured a series of superimpositions and dissolves along with jump cuts of Léna in bed talking to Charlie.  For me these work very well to convey a sense of tenderly romantic delirium.

I have already mentioned the speed of the narrative presentation, and this has a cumulative effect over the course of the film.  There are many tracking shots, but they are not leisurely – everything is moving fast in this story.  The editing is good, too – I particularly liked the intercutting of conversation among the characters inside the car driven by the two thugs. 

Returning to the movie’s principal theme about love between a man and a woman, I would say this is about love from the wistful perspective of a man whose existential survival, on the psychological level, is at stake.  It captures this feeling of loneliness and hesitancy, and its effectiveness is due perhaps as much to the memorable performances of Charles Aznavour, as Charlie, and  Marie Dubois as Léna, as it is to Truffaut’s cinematic techniques. 

  1. Some of my favorite people are Armenians, and I have always admired their style and culture.  Regrettably, though, Aznavour is a staunch advocate of heavy-duty intellectual property restrictions, which I believe and have argued are harmful to our general welfare.
  2. I have discussed mirror shots before – see for example Torment (1944).


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Brilliant analysis of an equally brilliant film... it's easily one of the best French New Wave films... and arguably the best film that Truffaut made (The Story of Adele H may be the only other film that can be regarded as the French master filmmaker's best work).

Your film analysis has summed up the film perfectly for me... it brought back all those images to my mind and now I am almost tempted to revisit the film right away.

The fact that Truffaut had the talent to transform a relatively unknown Pulp novel into a powerful work of cinematic art speaks volumes about the man's filmmaking genius.

I have seen several films where a nobody becomes a somebody thanks to some twist of fate... and the moment he becomes famous, we see him undergo a complete transformation (the protagonist here also acknowledges the same). In "Shoot the Piano Player" we get to see something pretty unique: A man once famous changing into a nobody. It's something that we don't see very often in cinema... and even if we do, like in the case of Jake LaMotta, the treatment and hence the impact is just not quite the same. Also, it's quite interesting that Truffaut here presents us with three different kinds of women - which casts a blow to the popular notion that all women are one and the same and the only difference lies in the way they look.

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