Home Video Reviews
Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Francois Truffaut's second feature, may have puzzled audiences at the time due to its freewheeling shifts in tone, but now it stands out as one of the director's most enchanting works. No one can forget its nifty gimmicks such as Bobby LaPoint's pun-laden "Framboise" song, the triple-screen effect used when Plyne divulges Kohler's whereabouts (recalling Abel Gance's Napoleon), and the brief shot depicting a gangster's mother collapsing when he swears on her life. But the film also succeeds at capturing the pain and elation of love, thanks to its succinct and surprisingly mature depiction of Charlie's first marriage, and above all the tender and lyrical love scene between Charlie and Lena. One could argue that Shoot the Piano Player finally lacks the concentrated emotional force that distinguish The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962), but here Truffaut's youthful daring is to be valued for its own sake.
Truffaut was not just influenced by American film noir, as critics often repeat, but also by crime novels--popularly known as Serie noire in France. In 1945 the French publishing house Gallimard established La Serie noire, a line of crime fiction which included translations of English-language novels and their French counterparts. Some of the better-known Serie noire authors included: Albert Simonin, Pierre Lesou, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Hadley Chase, Peter Cheney, William Irish and Chester Himes. Readily identified by a stark black cover with yellow lettering, La Serie noire became roughly synonymous with the polar or French police novel in general, and it no doubt served as the inspiration for the term film noir since many French film critics were also avid readers.
In various interviews Truffaut stated that the film's flippant treatment of the gangster figures resulted from his dislike of gangsters in general, which he discovered only in the process of making the film. And while he retrained the broad plot outline of David Goodis' novel Down There (1956), he tempered Goodis' remorseless fatalism. At one point in the novel, Eddie's neighbor Clarice, the prostitute, declares: "I hit sixty, I'll take gas. What's the point of hanging around doing nothing?" Similarly, Lena, Eddie's love interest, is more hard-edged in Goodis' novel than she is in Truffaut's film, where she's more in keeping with Truffaut's typically idealized female love interests. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find anything like the tender and lyrical love scene between Charlie and Lena in Goodis. The novel also stands out for its use of the second person voice when Eddie thinks to himself, a device that Truffaut reproduced via voiceover narration on the soundtrack. My favorite bit of invention is how Truffaut pits a phone handset against a knife during Charlie and Plyne's fight scene.
The old transfer on the Fox Lorber DVD was taken from Criterion's laserdisc, one of their earlier, pioneering efforts in letterboxing. It looked quite good in the Eighties, but improved video transfer technology had already rendered it obsolete by the time it had been recycled for DVD. Criterion's new transfer, supervised by Raoul Coutard, simply sparkles. Not only does it have sharper resolution and deeper blacks, the image as a whole is brighter and free of the chroma noise that marred the older version. Grain is present in many shots, but in this case it's evidence of the care that Criterion has taken to preserve the actual look of the film.
The supplementary features on this two-disc set are particularly attractive because they present a comprehensive and coherent overview of the film and the people associated with it. In the audio commentary track, Annette Insdorf and Peter Brunette do a good job of connecting the film with Truffaut's work as a whole. Raoul Coutard, with his characteristic openness and generosity, provides an excellent and detailed discussion about the technical aspects of shooting the film; every aspiring independent filmmaker should study what he says. More than forty years after the fact, lead actress Marie Dubois also demonstrates a solid memory about working on the film. In a rare interview shot previously for French television, long time Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman discusses her working relationship with Truffaut. Shoot the Piano Player would be a no-brainer purchase just for the new transfer, but the quality of the supplementary features make it a valuable reference source as well.
For more information about Shoot the Piano Player, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Shoot the Piano Player, go to TCM Shopping.
by James Steffen