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.



  1. This sounds cool. Every time I hear about a Truffaut movie, it sounds cool; both the ones I've actually seen ("Fahrenheit 451" [very underrated, in my opinion] and "The Bride Wore Black") were VERY cool. Eventually I'm going to need to bite the bullet and get familiar with his filmography.

    I, for one, do indeed enjoy my plot summaries with screencaps. Captions? I'm good either way.

    1. Sometimes I feel a good caption can enhance or properly position a screencap in the flow-of-blogging. But I have to admit, a lot of times, when I look back on them after they're published, they seem to impede said flow more than advance it.

      I'll keep experimenting...

      Oh yeah, Truffaut's work is great. "Day for Night" is one of my faves, and I don't think he ever made a bad film. Some hit me less than they hit other people - "Jules et Jim" for example, people go bonkers for that movie, but outside of an enduring interest in anything starring Jeanne Moreau, I like it but don't love it.

    2. Oh, right; duh. I've also seen "Day for Night," which was fantastic.

      On the subject of captions, I think yours work just fine pretty much all the time. They certainly do here.

    3. It's one of those design questions I go back and forth on - to caption or not to caption.

    4. You seem to have a good sense for when to use them and when to not use them. I just scanned back over the post, and at no point do the captions detract from the visuals of the shot. It looks to my eye like when you want the visuals to speak for themselves, you let them do so.

    5. That's good to hear - thanks!