Shoot the Piano Player


1h 25m 1960
Shoot the Piano Player

Brief Synopsis

A concert pianist on the run gets mixed up with gangsters.

Film Details

Also Known As
Tirez sur le pianiste
Genre
Crime
Thriller
Foreign
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1960
Premiere Information
New York opening: 23 Jul 1962
Production Company
Films de la Pléïade
Distribution Company
Astor Pictures
Country
France
Location
France
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Down There by David Goodis (New York, 1956).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 25m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White (Dyaliscope)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

Charlie Kohler, a retiring piano player in a cheap Parisian dance bar, rears his youngest brother, Fido, with the help of a prostitute neighbor, Clarisse, who has also been Charlie's mistress. Two other brothers, Chico and Richard, seek help from Charlie in escaping from Momo and Ernest, two gangsters whom they have doublecrossed over some stolen money. To avoid the gangsters, Charlie takes refuge at the apartment of Léna, a waitress at the cafe, who has fallen in love with him and discovered his hidden past. Years before, he had been a brilliant concert pianist, Edouard Saroyan. His obsession with his career prompted his wife, Théresa, to reveal that she had given him his first chance at fame by submitting to the sexual demands of an impresario. Edouard walked out on her, but returned to the apartment on a premonition and found that Théresa had committed suicide. Shattered, he abandoned his career, changed his name, and became a haunted man with a single aim--to avoid trouble. Charlie now embarks on a second chance at love with Léna, who 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 Plyne, the jealous bartender, and accidentally kills him. Meanwhile, Momo and Ernest kidnap Fido. Charlie and Léna attempt to cover up Plyne's death and hoping to intercept the gangsters, they drive to Charlie's family villa in Savoie, where Chico and Richard are hiding. Momo and Ernest finally arrive with Fido. 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.

Film Details

Also Known As
Tirez sur le pianiste
Genre
Crime
Thriller
Foreign
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1960
Premiere Information
New York opening: 23 Jul 1962
Production Company
Films de la Pléïade
Distribution Company
Astor Pictures
Country
France
Location
France
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel Down There by David Goodis (New York, 1956).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 25m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White (Dyaliscope)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Articles

Shoot the Piano Player


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

SOURCES:
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
Shoot The Piano Player

Shoot the Piano Player

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 SOURCES: 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

Shoot the Piano Player - Francois Truffaut's SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER on DVD


Synopsis: Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) is a former concert pianist who has abandoned his career after his wife's suicide. He now plays honky-tonk piano in a tavern and raises his kid brother Fido alone in order to protect him from the family's organized crime business. When his estranged brother Chico shows up without warning, on the run from another pair of gangsters, Charlie inevitably becomes involved against his wishes and ends up endangering Lena, a waitress with whom he is falling in love.

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

Shoot the Piano Player - Francois Truffaut's SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER on DVD

Synopsis: Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) is a former concert pianist who has abandoned his career after his wife's suicide. He now plays honky-tonk piano in a tavern and raises his kid brother Fido alone in order to protect him from the family's organized crime business. When his estranged brother Chico shows up without warning, on the run from another pair of gangsters, Charlie inevitably becomes involved against his wishes and ends up endangering Lena, a waitress with whom he is falling in love. 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

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

Location scenes filmed in Paris and near Grenoble. Paris opening: November 1960 as Tirez sur le pianiste; running time: 80 min.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1962

Released in United States 1992

Released in United States 1999

Released in United States November 2, 1989

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1960

Shown at Alliance Francaise in New York City November 2, 1989.

Dyaliscope

Released in United States 1962

Released in United States 1992 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (Francois Truffaut Tribute) June 18 - July 2, 1992.)

Released in United States 1999 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Tout Truffaut" April 23 - June 24, 1999.)

Released in United States Winter January 1, 1960

Released in United States November 2, 1989 (Shown at Alliance Francaise in New York City November 2, 1989.)