Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Francois Truffaut's second film is the director's conscious attempt to express his affection for the American crime thrillers he and his Cahiers du Cinema critics had been championing for years. With Shoot the Piano Player Truffaut practically outdoes them, at least in terms of fidelity to their pulp fiction roots. Shot cheaply and completely free of pretension, this tale of a kind-hearted pianist caught up in crime adds the New Wave's sense of freedom to an underappreciated genre. As Truffaut says in one of the interviews included here, American authors like David Goodis were so popular among his crowd, Parisian serie noire devotées couldn't believe they weren't rich and famous.
Criterion is slowly closing the DVD gaps on the work of Godard and Truffaut, and this pricey-two disc special edition is a classy presentation of a deserving New Wave classic.
Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) plays a piano in a cheap cafe, but he was once Edouard Saroyan, a promising classical pianist married to a beautiful wife, Thérèse (Nicole Berger). Charlie's crook brother Chico (Albert Rémy) is on the run from former associates disputing the proceeds from a robbery, and the crooks eventually try to use Charlie and his new girlfriend Léna (Marie Dubois) as leverage. But Charlie himself becomes a fugitive after some bad business with his jealous boss, Plyne (Serge Davri)
Some of the best adaptations of hardboiled American pulp literature were filmed by foreigners. American movies used stars and had authentic locales and language, but both censorship and the tendency to glamorize frequently distorted the literary originals beyond recognition. James M. Cain's Love's Lovely Counterpart became the Technicolor Slightly Scarlet, a good title change but a bowdlerized adaptation. David Goodis' own Nightfall was well-directed by the sensitive Jacques Tourneur but lacks a true sordid dimension, coming off instead as a weird nightmare. Shoot the Piano Player has a relaxed, matter-of-fact gutter feel to its characters. Nobody is being judged and nobody's really going anywhere in their lives. The actors don't look like movie stars and the leading lady has a fresh quality unseen in Hollywood actresses - Marie Dubois isn't building a career, she's just 'behaving' this one role. When Charlie Kohler accepts the favors of Clarisse, the prostitute next door (Michèle Mercier), Truffaut simply shows what happens without regard to what a censor might think.
Droopy-eyed Charles Aznavour makes a perfect melancholy hero. He's a loser with a good attitude, a man with regrets but free of bitterness. We know his heart's already been broken the first moment we see him, and an extended flashback shows us how it happened. Reluctant and far from secure, Charlie was just getting used to his success when he discovered that it began not with his talent but with a betrayal. Movies have plenty of soulful musicians with shady pasts but Charlie Aznavour is one of the few that resonates with an authentic pulp vibe. Why hasn't anyone ever done a story of how Casablanca's Sam (Dooley Wilson) ended up in Europe playing in a Morroccan dive?
Truffaut plays the gangster end of his story for laughs, and concentrates instead on romance. Flip comedy provides wonderful surprises, as when a gangster tells a lie and then says "May my mother be struck dead if I'm not telling the truth." Truffaut mischievously cuts to an irised view of an old woman, somewhere, clutching her heart and keeling over. Crooked brother Chico is only a plot mechanism, while the heart of the story resides with the three women in Charlie's life. With Thérèse we see commitment and affection eroded by doubt and self-recrimination. Clarisse's favors are given without complication (something impossible in morality-centric American films) and Léna turns out to be a resourceful companion in addition to being alternately spunky and tender. Truffaut presents them in bed in a series of dissolves and soft words that tells us they're perfectly matched. The technique may be a little extreme but it works.
Much of the rest of the film has an improvised quality, with Raoul Coutard sometimes having difficulty keeping camera shadows out of his shots. But the sketchy, unfussy look and the freshness of the performances is what counts. Truffaut's scenes are impressive, even when his camera technique looks rushed or haphazard. The flattering way to describe Truffaut's method would be The Jazz Approach ... the actors seem to make it up as they go along.
Criterion's snappy DVD of Shoot the Piano Player presents the rough-and-ready serie noire feature in great shape. Most earlier editions were pan-scanned, and the image quality of at least one properly formatted (Dyaliscope) laserdisc tended to blur into gray mush. This enhanced and buffed disc retains the correct improvised, rushed look. The film is accompanied by a full commentary with academic analysts Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf, and an original trailer.
Criterion always packs Truffaut movies with extras, and producer Johanna Schiller has arranged a number of good interviews, new and old. Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois and Raoul Coutard all contribute memories of the experience and characterize Truffaut as being much like Charlie from the movie - shy and sensitive. Most of them discuss music hall performer/actor Serge Davri, a loose cannon who actually choked Aznavour on camera without explanation.Truffaut's script girl and later co-writer Suzanne Schiffman goes even deeper into the Truffaut work method. The delightful Ms. Dubois mentions a disastrous screen test in which Truffaut asked her to shout out a string of obscenities, and we are delighted to find it included on the disc. There is a full mini documentary on the life and music of composer Georges Delerue, and Francois Truffaut shows up talking about Shoot the Piano Player in excerpts from two separate television documentaries. He says that until he started shooting he didn't realize that he hated gangsters!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shoot the Piano Player rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf, trailer, interviews with Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Raoul Coutard and Suzanne Schiffman. Archive interviews with Francois Truffaut, featurette The Music of Georges Delerue, screen test, 28 page booklet with a Truffaut interview and an essay by Kent Jones.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 1, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson