Francois Truffaut followed up his excellent feature length directorial debut, the excellent crime drama The 400 Blows, with a quirky blend of comedy, crime noir, and drama with 1960's Shoot The Piano Player, based on a novel by American writer David Goodis. While the film lacks the intensity of his earlier feature, it's regardless a very well made and well acted film that reunited him with some of the actors he used in that first feature and that showed some interesting growth on Truffaut's part as a director.
Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour of And Then There Were None) plays honky-tonk piano in a grubby little bar in the heart of downtown Paris. While performing one night, his brother, Chico (Albert Remy), runs in and interrupts him. Chico's a career criminal and is one the run from Momo (Claude Monsard) and Earnest (Daniel Boulanger), two gangsters who'd like to do him some harm for what he's done to them.
Charlie sends Chico on his way and doesn't think much more about it until that night, when he walks home Lena (Marie Dubois), one of the waitresses that he works with, they notice that the two thugs are following them. Charlie finally heads home where he sleeps with a prostitute unbeknownst to his younger brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), who lives in his apartment. When he wakes up the next morning and sends her on his way, he notices a suspicious car outside. When Charlie head outside to get to work, Momo and Earnest are outside waiting for him and they pull a gun on him and toss him in the back of their car. Their next stop is Lena's apartment, they grab her too and go for a little ride. Thankfully for Charlie and Lena, Earnest is a bad driver and the cops pull them over, which allows the two to escape. They head back to Lena's place where their mutual attraction for one another becomes obvious.
Once Charlie has slept with Lena, memories come drifting back to him and it's then that we find out he was once a renowned concert pianist named Edouard Saroyan. He rose to prominence a few years ago but when his wife committed suicide by leaping out of a window to her death, he more or less just gave up on life and that's how he ended up playing in bars.
Charlie's mind drifts back to the present, and it's then that he realizes that Momo and Earnest haven't forgotten about him, Lena, Fido or Chico. They're closing in on him, and soon he's going to have to do something about it.
Shoot The Piano Player starts off very much like a comedy, then turns into a crime story, then a character drama, then back to a crime story but all the while never loses touch with its comedic beginnings. It's an odd film, one that bounces around a fair bit, but it is exceptionally well photographed and benefits from a likeable lead in the form of Charles Aznavour. Considering that, as the liner notes state, his character is really a bit of a bastard, it's a testament to his skills in front of the camera that we care about him as much as we do. His chemistry acting alongside Marie Dubois is very effective and completely believable and one of the more interesting aspects of the film is watching their relationship grow, even if it is somewhat reluctantly.
Though the film plays out like a crime movie, it is very much a character piece more than anything else. There are a few long stretches in the film where not a lot really happens and in that sense, the pacing is strange but it gives us a chance to get to know the people in the movie better and makes them all the more human, warts and all. Truffaut does effectively build some great suspense towards the later part of the film, however, and things take a decidedly dark turn about the sixty minute mark. Shoot The Piano Player is a fairly brief film, clocking in at roughly eighty-one minutes in length and as such it is quite lean despite the aforementioned quieter moments.
The film also makes use of some excellent cinematography courtesy of Raoul Coutard (probably best known for his work on Godard's Week End). Once the action moves out of the heart of Paris and into the French countryside, the movie gets a bit of a face lift in terms of the visuals, and we're treated to some interesting wide angle shots that pull back from the action and give us more of a bird's eye view of what's happening, and interesting contrast to the earlier part of the film, which gets in closer to the characters as they're being developed.
This brand new 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen black and white transfer , supervised by director of photography Raoul Coutard, looks fantastic. Black levels are strong and deep and don't bury the fine detail in the background of the image at all. The grays look nice and stay fairly strong, as do the whites and this is a very well balanced image. There is some mild print damage in a few spots that shows up in the form of the odd scratch or speck here and there but these instances are few and far between. An understandable amount of film grain is also present throughout but it never proves to be distracting at all. In terms of digital problems there aren't any mpeg compression artifacts to note and neither is there any serious edge enhancement. The only really noticeable flaw is that there is some fairly heavy flickering in some scenes (you'll notice this right off the bat when the movie starts) but again, it's a minor issue. Criterion has done a bang up job in the visuals department on this release.
As far as older Mono tracks go, this one sounds pretty good. Presented in its original French language track with English subtitles, there's a surprising amount of depth to this track considering that it comes out of only one speaker. Dialogue is smooth and easy to follow, sound effects come through nicely and the score sounds great. If you listen for it, you will notice some mild hiss in the background of a few specific scenes but overall, there's not much to complain about here. The music, the piano in particular, sounds very nice and very distinct on this track. Nicely done.
The extras on this set are split over two discs. Here's what you'll find and where you'll find it…
The main supplement on the first disc is an analytical commentary track from film scholars Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf. As the film plays out they do a good job of pointing out some interesting facts about the movie, while also detailing some biographical information on the director and on the performers. They make some interesting comparisons between this film and some of Truffaut's other films, and also manage to work in some well thought out comparisons to Hitchcock as well. While it would have been preferable to get a commentary from someone involved in the production and maybe get some more specific historical memories, this critical discussion remains pretty interesting throughout and it does manage to give us a pretty good understanding of where Shoot The Piano Player falls into place amongst the director's other films. The commentators do a really good job of examining the ending of the film, giving one a whole new appreciation of just how well done the last twenty minutes of the film really are.
Also included on disc one is the original theatrical trailer for the film.
Criterion has managed to track down some interesting subjects for three new video interviews included with this release. First up is a talk with Charles Aznavour who talks about his work on the film, what he thought of working with Truffaut on the film, and how he feels about how the picture turned out. Aznavour is an interesting guy, his face still has that very distinct sadness to it that he managed to put to such effective use way back when in 1960 for this feature. Marie Dubois gets in front of the camera next. She explains how she became involved in the production, details her relationship with Truffaut and Aznavour at the time, and gives us some nice memories that she has of the film. The third interviewee is the director of photography who served on the film, Raoul Coutard. Raoul's talk is obviously more technical but no less interesting as he covers some of the more interesting compositions used in the movie (and there are an abundance of them) and why some of the film was shot the way that it was. These three interviews give us a pretty interesting look at Truffaut's working process, his effectiveness as a director, and also give us a bit of a glimpse into his creative process.
Some vintage supplements are also included here. First up is an interview with Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman, who passed away in 2001. Schiffman worked as a writer on many of Truffaut's films from 1973 through 1983 with his last project, Confidentially Yours before his death in 1984, collaborating with him on no less than eight films from his body of work. As such, she got to know him and know the way that he works fairly well. She talks at some length of her experiences with the man, how they got along, and also gives us some of her impressions of his work. While this supplement isn't so much specific to the film presented here, it's still a nice look back at the director and it was an interesting segment.
Up next are a pair of excerpts from two different French cinema documentaries that feature Truffaut speaking about Shoot The Piano Player. In the first clip, he talks about the movie, the shooting process, and some of the cast members, and in the second clip he gives us his take on the source material that the film was based on, that being the novel Down There by David Goodis. Again, this is an interesting little bit of material here, as we get to hear in his own words what Truffaut's take on the movie is and we become privy to some of the director's reasoning behind the way that it was made.
Rounding out the supplements are a clip from Marie Dubois' screen test that landed her the role of Lena for the film, and an illustrated audio essay on The Music Of Georges Delerue that was composed for the film.
Also worth mentioning is that inside the keepcase there's a lengthy insert booklet containing an essay on Shoot The Piano Player by Kent Jones and a reprint of an interview with Truffaut from 1980 that was conducted by Helene Laroche Davis. Also in this booklet are two brief little essays by Truffaut who gives his thoughts on Charles Aznavour and Marie Dubois.
Criterion gives Shoot The Piano Player a very solid presentation in terms of audio and video, and loads the two disc set up with some informative and interesting extra features. While Truffaut has made better films, Shoot The Piano Player is a quirky and interesting blend of thrills and laughs and it remains a completely enjoyable film, even if it does tend to come across as a little disjointed at times. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.