François Truffaut’s second feature film after his career-defining debut Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960) is a cheerfully ramshackle affair, alternately light and serious, a playful film from a director who had proven what he could do after a long period of writing as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma and other journals, who now felt relaxed enough to indulge himself a bit. Shot in classically free New Wave style by the gifted Raoul Coutard, Shoot the Piano Player stars the iconic French cabaret singer Charles Aznavour as Charlie Kohler, a seemingly nondescript pianist who pounds the keyboard with fatalistic indifference in a run-down bar in the slums of Paris.
But not so fast – Charlie is really Edouard Saroyan, formerly a world-famous classical pianist whose career has fallen apart after the suicide of his wife Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who threw herself out a window in a fit of despair after submitting to the despicable “advances” of concert impresario Lars Schmeel (a perfect name for such a repellent character, ably played by Claude Heymann) to further Edouard’s career. Thérèse’s suicide triggers an avalanche of events that sends Charlie to the bottom of skid row, and closer to his estranged family – a bunch of real, if often incompetent crooks – which he had tried so desperately to escape in his climb to the top.
Based on the 1956 novel Down There by David Goodis, the film was envisioned by Truffaut from the start as one “that I would call a respectful pastiche of the Hollywood B-films from which I learned so much”.1 The narrative, while serving as a framework for the film, often drifts to the side as Truffaut indulges in sequences that do nothing to advance the plot, but rather reflect the chaotic and ever-changing tapestry of daily existence, often pushed to humorous extremes. In truth, though Truffaut duly paid for the rights to Goodis’ novel, he used very little of the actual text, creating something altogether different.
We stop to listen to a song in a café for no reason other than it’s amusing; a desperate chase down an alley is interrupted by a chance meeting with a stranger, which then drifts into a deeply philosophical conversation; characters pop up and disappear seemingly at will. In short, the film does what it wants, when it wants, and is beholden to no one but its maker. Critic Dwight Macdonald described Shoot the Piano Player as a mixture of “three genres which are usually kept apart: crime melodrama, romance, and slapstick”, but felt that overall the attempt at a genre mash-up was unsuccessful, and didn’t “gel”.2
Pauline Kael, a much more perceptive critic, immediately came to the film’s defence, noting that it was “full of unresolved, inexplicable, disharmonious elements, irony and slapstick and defeat all compounded – not arbitrarily as the reviewers complain – but in terms of the film maker’s efforts to find some expression for his own anarchic experience, instead of making more of those tiresome well-made movies that no longer mean much to us”.3 Indeed, this is precisely what Truffaut is up to, slamming scenes of romantic pathos up against alternating segments of comic violence, affectionately burlesquing the tired conventions of the B-movie thriller so that the entire film becomes a delirious homage.
Truffaut knew going in that Shoot the Piano Player wouldn’t be a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. As he remarked to a colleague, “With my penchant for anti-heroes and bittersweet love stories, I feel I am capable of making the first James Bond film to lose money.”4 To an interviewer shortly after the film’s release, Truffaut noted “I was aiming, above all, to explode a genre (the crime film) by mixing in other genres (comedy, drama, melodrama, the psychological film, the thriller, the love film, etc.). I know that there is nothing an audience hates more than changes of tone, but nevertheless I hugely enjoy changing the tone.”5
As he told another interviewer shortly after the film first appeared, “In Piano Player, I wanted to break free of the unity of The 400 Blows. When the film is moving in one direction, I intercept it and send it down another route. I wanted to get rid of clichés, glamorous characters, and preconceptions. As soon as one interpretation seems to be taking over, I destroy it, so as to forestall the possibility of any intellectual comfort, both on the part of the spectator, and also of myself.”6
And it’s absolutely true: throughout the film, there are numerous in-jokes, references to Truffaut’s Cahiers colleagues, characters breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly, and even some sheer vaudeville gags inserted at completely unexpected intervals. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and Raoul Coutard’s inspired cinematography often becomes a part of the action, roaming about restlessly to capture the movements of the actors. Though the budget of the film was greater than that of The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player looks less formal, less cohesive and more slapdash – open to any possibility at any time.
Looking for a film to compare it to, I think of Ron Rice’s Beat masterpiece The Flower Thief – also made in 1960 – for a similarly romantic, open-ended, endlessly exploratory film, willing to take whatever risks it wishes, seeking complete freedom from established norms of mainstream cinema. But, as one might expect from Truffaut’s comments above, audiences didn’t warm to the film’s willfully disjointed structure; the film performed indifferently at the box office, and was not released in the United States until 1962. By contrast, Truffaut’s third film, Jules and Jim (1962), immediately won greater acceptance from critics and audiences as a relatively straightforward tale of a romantic triangle and its tragic consequences. It’s an excellent film, but it’s clearly a much more predestined affair whose conclusion can easily be seen from a distance.
Thus, in many ways, Shoot the Piano Player is a one-of-a-kind film for the director. While most of Truffaut’s work is shot through with a transcendent romanticism, here the director’s approach is to keep the audience always off balance, to work against expectations and even to misdirect the audience if it suits his mood. Shot in Dyaliscope (the French version of CinemaScope) but looking as though it was snatched from the streets and alleyways of Paris, part affectionate parody and part deadly serious, in love with all the plastic possibilities of cinema – even to the use of trick optical effects in one instance – Shoot the Piano Player in the end seems like a fever dream, in which anything can happen, and often does. It’s a thoroughly delightful, puzzling, unclassifiable work: an improvisational homage that in the end bears no stamp more clearly than that of its maker.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Peter Brunette, friend and scholar.
Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960 France 80 min)
Prod Co: Les Films de la Pléiade Prod: Pierre Braunberger Dir: François Truffaut Scr: François Truffaut and Marcel Moussy, from the novel Down There by David Goodis Phot: Raoul Coutard Ed: Claudine Bouché, Cécile Decugis Prod Des: Jacques Mély Mus: Georges Delerue
Cast: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier, Albert Rémy, Claude Heymann, Richard Kanayan
- Peter Brunette, ed., Shoot the Piano Player: François Truffaut, Director (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1993) p. 5. Emphasis in original. ↩
- Dwight Macdonald, quoted in Brunette, p. 9. ↩
- Pauline Kael, quoted in Brunette, p. 10. ↩
- François Truffaut, quoted in Robert Ingram and Paul Duncan, eds., François Truffaut: The Complete Films (Köln, Germany: Taschen, 2004) p. 55. ↩
- François Truffaut, quoted in Anne Gillain, ed., Truffaut on Cinema, Alistair Fox, trans. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2017) p. 83. ↩
- Truffaut, quoted in Gillain, p. 85. ↩