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Shoot the Piano Player (1960), director Francois Truffaut's second feature, stands as one of the key films of the French New Wave -- a period marked by works of young directors experimenting with untraditional narrative and visual styles such as fragmentation, improvisation, and the mixing of emotional tones.
All those elements certainly apply to Shoot the Piano Player, which Truffaut made as a tribute to his beloved American B gangster movies of the 1940s and '50s. He was not interested in imitating those movies, however; he wanted to distort and invert them to his own sensibility, much as one of his idols, director Nicholas Ray, had done to the western genre with the cult classic Johnny Guitar (1954).
Truffaut also wanted to do something radically different from his first film, the beautiful coming-of-age story The 400 Blows (1959). So he chose to adapt a hardboiled American crime novel, Down There by David Goodis, whose books had been the basis for several films noirs over the years including Dark Passage (1944) and Nightfall (1957). Down There had just been published in France as Tirez sur le pianiste, or Shoot the Piano Player, and Truffaut liked its mix of fantasy and tragedy, and its gangster characters talking about women, love and banal daily life. He also was drawn to an image contained in the book of "a sloping road in the snow, the car running down it with no noise from the motor." That single image, Truffaut explained, "made me decide to make the film. [It] was something I wanted terribly to visualize." Working with co-writer Marcel Moussy, Truffaut moved the story's setting from Philadelphia and environs to Paris and the French countryside, and otherwise kept loosely intact the story of a washed-up concert pianist (Charles Aznavour) who is reduced to playing in a dive bar and gets mixed up with gangsters.
In fact, Truffaut himself said in a 1960 interview that "there isn't much story to tell. I have tried to give a portrait of a timid man, divided between society and his art, and to show his relationship with three women. But no treatise, no message, no psychology; it moves between the comic and the sad, and back again. I don't assume any right to judge my characters: like Jean Renoir, I think that everyone has his own reasons for behavior."
Truffaut's account of scripting the film's ending, a shootout in the snow, shows how little he was thinking about conventional plot: "[Actors] Albert Remy, Daniel Boulanger, and I sat around a table asking one another who was going to shoot whom. On top of it, the cold got some of us and we decided to film with those who weren't sick. Finally we liquidated earlier those who had to get back to Paris. All the ending was done just like that."
Truffaut filmed Shoot the Piano Player in seven weeks on a budget of $150,000, about twice that of The 400 Blows but still low compared to other French films of the time. Released in France in 1960 and in America in 1962, the movie did not do well commercially on either side of the Atlantic, and Truffaut considered it a dismal failure. Audiences quite simply found the film challenging at best and mystifying at worst, with its lack of traditional plot, quirky style, inconsistent lighting, mix of tones, jagged pacing and story digressions too all-over-the-place to make sense of.
The critics were more divided. Some, like the audiences, saw confusion, but others, especially in France, saw charm and groundbreaking innovation. One French critic declared, "It is a sort of manifesto against the dominant, passive cinema. On an aesthetic level, ...it truly is liberated cinema." Another described it as "a thriller told by a child. Everything is lost in a dream. The sordid is obscured by poetry, a poetry that models life to suit its own needs, without cruelty.... [Shoot the Piano Player is] the best in today's cinema."
The American critical establishment was mostly perplexed, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissing the film as "nuttiness." "It looks," wrote Crowther, "as though M. Truffaut went haywire in this film. It looks as though...he couldn't quite control his material... Else why would he switch so abruptly from desperately serious scenes and moods to bits of irrelevant nonsense or blatant caricature? ...It is a teasing and frequently amusing (or moving) film that M. Truffaut has made, but it simply does not...find a sufficiently firm line, even one of calculated spoof and mischief, on which to hang and thus be saved."
Pauline Kael, on the other hand, saw the film as a triumph, writing in The New Yorker, "When I refer to Truffaut's style as anarchic and nihilistic, I am referring to a style, not an absence of it.... What's exciting about movies like Shoot the Piano Player...is that they, quite literally, move with the times. They are full of unresolved, inexplicable, disharmonious elements, irony and slapstick and defeat all compounded -- not arbitrarily as the reviewers claim -- but in terms of the film maker's efforts to find some expression for his own anarchic experience."
Truffaut, for his part, considered his film a "musical," akin to a jazz score. "You shouldn't look for reality in Piano Player," he said, "neither in that family of Armenians in the snow near Grenoble nor in the bar at Levallois-Perret (you don't dance in real bars) -- but simply for the pleasure of mixing things around to see if they're mixable or not, and I believe a lot in that idea of mixing which, I think, presides over everything.... The idea was to make a film without a subject, to express all I wanted to say about glory, success, downfall, failure, women and love by means of a detective story."
As best as one can tell from a 1962 letter he sent Truffaut, author David Goodis seemed to like the film, though he dwelled in the letter almost exclusively on the film's dialogue. He wrote, "Astor Pictures invited me to a screening of Shoot the Piano Player and my reactions to the sub-titles were mixed. There were instances when I felt [they] harmonized brilliantly with the rhythm of the film, but at other instances the effect was sometimes superfluous, sometimes ambiguous. Also, I felt that there was an over-usage of slang expressions, especially in the scenes involving the two gunmen. Aside from that, the title-writer was precise and got the meaning across, and I would say that in total the sub-titles are better than adequate."
This was the first of ten pictures on which Truffaut collaborated with composer Georges Delerue. "All the musicians I asked to do the music turned me down after being shown the film," Truffaut said. "It was a thankless film to do. Georges Delerue saw the film and he was the first to see what it was really about; he caught the reference to American films, saw it wasn't a parody but rather a pastiche, that there were, successively, ironical things and then others that had to be moving; and at top speed he wrote music I find stunning."
By Jeremy Arnold
Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, Truffaut
Ronald Bergan (Editor), Francois Truffaut Interviews
Jean Douchet, French New Wave
Pauline Kael, I Lost it at the Movies
Carole Le Berre, Francois Truffaut at Work
Richard Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema
Dominique Rabourdin (Compiler), and Robert Erich Wolf (Translator), Truffaut By Truffaut