Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Tonight's entry:
Shoot the Piano Player (1960).

After the triumph of his debut film The 400 Blows, Truffaut wanted to make an homage to the American noirs and B-films that had such an impact on him amidst the various fascinating events of his early life. Truffault had read Down There by David Goodis around the time he wrote the scenario for Breathless (Godard, 1960) and originally intended it to make it his first film. He changed the story and dynamics to suit his tastes. As recounted here: "I was enthused by the dialogue, the poetic tone of the book, the love story, the evocation of the past. I gave the novel to Pierre Braunberger" (the producer of many FNWs, including this one) - "and he liked it a lot and bought the rights to it." But he changed his mind and made Les Quatre Cents Coups in 1959 and saved Tirez sur le Pianiste for 1960.

Like your plot summaries with a generous amount of caption-heavy screencaps? You're in luck!

The film opens with a man fleeing unknown pursuers in almost total darkness.
When he collides with a streetpole, a man helps him to his feet and then chats good-naturedly about his theories of monogamy and contentment. This is a film where every character has a theory on love and relationships.

The man who hit the streetpole is Chico, who is seeking out his brother "Charlie," the piano player in a lively juke joint.

Charlie lives with their youngest brother, Fido, with some help from Clarisse, the prostitute who lives and works next door. (The proximity allows for some other perks, as well, at least for Charlie.) They have yet another brother, Richard, who along with Chico, dispossessed a couple of gangsters of their share of a recent heist they pulled together. At first Charlie wants nothing to do with it, but when the two gangsters (Momo and Ernest) show up, he helps his brother escape.

When he walks Léna, a waitress at the club who has a crush on him according to the sleazy owner Monsieur Plyne, home, they are tailed by the gangsters.

They are eventually kidnapped by them, but they manage to escape. They hide out at Léna's apartment, where Charlie - who has been wrestling with how to express his feelings for her in poetic voiceover - discovers she is in love with him. 

Moreover, she has discovered his hidden past.
Years before, he was the acclaimed concert pianist Edouard Saroyan.

But his success seemed to alienate his wife, Théresa, who eventually reveals that in order to secure the services of his impresario (agent) she was forced to sleep with him. She's been wracked with guilt ever since. When she confesses all this to Edouard, he storms out - well, rather unstormily, but he leaves in a huff of aggrieved dignity just the same.

He doesn't get too far before having a bad feeling about this, and he returns, alas too late to prevent her from having jumped out of the window.
Shattered, he changes his name and becomes the piano man at A La Bonne Franquette.
Léna and Edouard, whom she still calls Charlie, decide to quit the club, be in love, and re-establish Charlie's career.

Léna encourages him to make a comeback as a concert pianist. They give their notice at the cafe, but Charlie is forced to fight over Léna with Mr. Plyne, the jealous bartender, and accidentally kills him. 

Meanwhile, Momo and Ernest kidnap Fido.
Hoping to intercept the gangsters, Charlie and Léna drive to Charlie's family villa in the mountains, where Chico and Richard are hiding.
In the ensuing gunplay between Charlie's brothers and the gangsters, Léna is killed by a stray bullet.

Cleared by police in Plyne's death, Charlie returns to his old job as a piano player at the cafe. 

It's a recognizable noir but at the same time, the story mixes genres freely and explores classic Truffaut themes such as love's bi-polar nature, how a man can love different women differently, the difficulty of overcoming shyness, and (though not as prominently as elsewhere) the resilience of children. There are also some similarities between Truffaut and Charlie and between Truffaut and Charles Aznavour, the actor who plays him. Both are shy men with troubling pasts who are drawn to women but find it hard to talk to them, and both have tasted early success which they suspect may owe more to the influence of others than their own talent. Extended voice-overs, out-of-sequence shots and sudden jump cuts disrupt the action.

And as mentioned here:

"Abundant comic touches in particular distinguish the film from its source material and other films of the same genre. The hoodlums (Daniel Boulanger and Claude Mansard) are portrayed more like the Marx brothers than real tough guys, endlessly discussing and arguing about subjects such as women’s secret desires. In one famous scene one of the gangsters proclaims 'May my mother drop dead if I tell a lie' which is immediately followed by a shot of an old woman clutching her heart and collapsing."

This is one of several gags in the film which likely came from conversations with Godard and the other Cahiers du Cinéma folks, things they always noticed in films or "what if this happened instead" sort of things. Another of these occurs when a topless Clarisse gets into bed with Charlie at the beginning, and he quickly raises the bedsheet to cover her nudity.

The way music is used in the film is also notable:

"One of the best scenes involves the lead's important audition with a major impresario. He walks down a long corridor to the office and is about to press the doorbell to the office, but waits until the end of a violin solo from within." 

"The door opens and an attractive female violinist emerges and the lead goes in side while the camera follows the violinist back down the hall focusing on her expressionless face."
"It's a long corridor and finally we hear the impressive start of a piano piece that almost stops the violinist in her tracks, but she continues and the camera remains in her face as she exits the building and the camera never bothers to show the actual audition."
"The violinist does not reappear in the film, but the intensity of her aspirations and frustrations cannot be forgotten and epitomize the movie's empathy."

Also: the two main songs which act as Greek choruses: Boby Lapointe's "Framboise" (lyrics translated into English here) and "Dialogue d'Amoureux" by Félix Leclerc, which plays as Charlie and Léna drive to the Saroyan family hideout.  


Charles Aznavour plays Charlie/ Edouard. 

Look him up sometime - for a guy few Americans have heard of, you've been listening to him (in films and TV) your whole life.
Marie Dubois plays Léna and Nicole Berger, who died in a car cash seven years after this film, plays Thérèse. As for:

Apart from this film, I know her primarily from Black Sunday, but apparently her best-known role (to the point where she was so typecast she had to leave France to seek further acting work in Italy and America) was Angélique, "the Marquise of the Angels" in the film series of the same name, very popular in France at the time. 

And two folks from The 400 Blows (Richard Kanayan, above center, and Albert Rémy, below) show up as Fido and Chico.



The Twilight Zone: Mirror Image

Your next stop:
Season 1, Episode 21.
"Millicent Barnes, age 25. Young woman waiting for a bus on a rainy November night."

"Not a very imaginative type is Ms. Barnes: not given to undue anxiety or fears, or for that matter even the most temporal flights of fantasy. Like most young career women, she has generic classification as a quote 'girl with her head on her shoulders' end quote. All of which is mentioned now because, in just a moment, the head on Ms. Barnes' shoulders will be put to a test: circumstances will assault her sense of reality and chain of nightmares will put her sanity in a block."

"Millicent Barnes who, in one minute, will wonder... if she's going mad."

Serling's intro sets the table nicely. This is one of the Zone's more abstract entries: no homily or ironic twist at episode's end (or not much of one - we're not in "Time Enough at Last" territory here by any means), just an unsettling glimpse of the impossible with no real resolution.

So, as mentioned above, Millicent is a young woman traveling through upstate New York by bus. When she checks with the ticket agent about the overdue bus, he snaps at her that she's already been up there twice to check with him.  

"Look, all I want is a civil answer."
"You're getting a civil answer. The trouble is every ten minutes you're up here requiring one. Situations just don't change that rapidly."

She's distracted by the sight of a bag just like hers in the checked-in area behind him. She remarks it looks just like hers, at which he says it is hers; she checked it already. She says that's impossible, her bag is right over - but wait! The bag she had out by the bench is now gone. What's going on here? He harrumphs - she's either walking in her sleep or hung over or something: "Would you just go back over there and sit down and breathe through your nose and let me read my magazine?"

Confused she goes into the ladies room. The cleaning lady also tells her she's been in there before, though she has no memory of it. When she opens the door, she sees her - a woman exactly like her, sitting right next to the same valise that was just checked-in moments before. She closes the door, and when she opens it, her double is gone. 

Enter: Paul Grinstead from Binghamton.

Paul talks to her and tells her it's all probably some misunderstanding but that the bus will be along any moment. Which it is. But on it? Double number two! She runs away before fainting, and both she and Paul are stuck at the depot until the next bus arrives at seven the next morning. 

Millicent tells Pauls she believes her other-dimensional doppelganger is trying to replace her in this dimension. Paul says sure, sure, sounds a little crazy but gets some rest. Then he calls the cops to come and get her because I mean, she's nuts, right? Too bad, bro. So cute, too. 

But almost immediately, the same things begin to happen to him. First the disappearing bag:
Then the appearance of a strange, smirking double, who leads him on a fruitless chase before disappearing. The End.

"Obscure and metaphysical explanation to cover a phenomena. Reasons dredged out of the shadows to explain away that which cannot be explained. Call it 'parallel planes' or just 'insanity'. Whatever it is, you will find it... in the Twilight Zone."

As with "The After Hours," I think this one can be taken at face value, but its mix of ambiguity and themes of alienation and identity lend themselves to more fanciful takes. One such take is this, which starts by analyzing "the very simple set of the bus station, which is bracketed like the set for a modernist morality play by twin neon signs, bold, declarative, and emblematic of the content of the episode: 'Baggage' and 'Ladies.' Ladies with Baggage." 

Of course, the signs make sense in a regular-old-set-design way. But I'm not opposed to reading them this way.

"More interestingly, there’s a gorgeous frame-within-frame composition here that calls back to 'The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine.'  That earlier film also featured a woman looking at an image of her own self — with a very similar gesture, actually, though the roles are reversed: here the 'real' self (in the process of being made fictive) is the horrified one, where earlier it was the 'fictive' self (whose place would be taken by the real self by episode’s end)." 

"The sign above the doppelganger makes explicit a theme throughout these episodes: the baggage that these women carry is, at least in part, the image of the self, which threatens to overwhelm and usurp the life of the person, the individual."

It's difficult if not impossible to accurately read contemporary-context so many years later, but it is worth pointing out - as the same reviewer did for "The After Hours" and another about-to-be-mentioned - that any tale of a woman traveling alone is going to have different connotations in 1960 than it does in 2016: "This is also another episode about a single woman traveling on her own, and as in 'The Hitch-Hiker,' one can see a not-so-subtle subtext that such independence leads only to trouble, or to madness."

Season 1, Episode 16.

"Offhand, mister," says the washroom attendant to Millicent's supposed knight-in-shining-armor, 'I’d say she needed some looking after… if you know what I mean."  

"She means psychological help, or institutionalization, but she could mean so many other things, as well."
And so Millicent is carted off by the police to the nut house.

"The ladies' room, especially in its darkened state, seems a realm of the Freudian unconscious, a place from which bizarre symbol has erupted into reality. She’s connected the neon 'Ladies' sign with the idea of multiples of herself, just as we viewers have."

"But in the reality of 'Mirror Image,' Millicent was right, not insane, and the same thing happens to Paul - his double flees to take over his life, leaving him in the dust, a truly wonderful smirk on his face. And as in much expressionist cinema, the episode can be seen as a societal indictment as much as a comforting horror that reinforces norms."  

I think it's an intelligent take on the episode. Perhaps we're too quick to read just about anything as an "indictment of societal norms" these days - and I cringe at the idea of this episode being re-conceptualized as a trans-bathroom-identity-war sort of deal, which might be one interpretation more than the script can handle - but the title, script, and mood of the story don't stand in the way of reading  "Mirror Image" that way. 

Most importantly, whatever its true intent, it's fantastic TV. I like the ironic-twist-ending TZ episodes as well as the here-is-the-message-damn-it episodes, but I also like the ones like this or "The Odyssey of Flight 33:" that don't solve or explain the mystery. Possibilities are floated but not confirmed. The story ends with we-the-audience pulling away from the station, looking back, perhaps with some relief for leaving it, at the drama suspended on the platform. 


For years I remembered the lead in this being played by Anne Francis. Nope: Vera Miles. My bad. If I ever argued you with you on this point in the pre-whip-out-your-phone-and-let's-settle-this era, my sincere apologies.

Vera was of course Janet Leigh's sister in Psycho and was Hitch's first choice to play the dual role of Judy Barton/ Madeleine Elster in Vertigo, but she had to pass due to pregnancy. That would have been something, though, as then she'd have had two iconic blonde-doppelganger roles on her c.v.  

Martin Milner was in tons of classic TV (and the co-lead of both Adam 12 and Route 66) and was also in Sweet Smell of Success and Valley of the Dolls, two of my faves, though for radically different reasons. (Naomi Stevens, the washroom attendant who tells Paul that Millicent might need "looking after," also had a small part in Valley of the Dolls.)

Not the most glamorous role, but he gets a lot of my favorite line deliveries in this episode. ("When not in use - turn off the juice. That's what I always say.") He had a pretty long career as a supporting actor and died five years after this episode premiered, aged 66.