Shoot the Piano Player: The Criterion Collection
A man is on the run from unseen assailants. Breathless and confused, he takes a tumble and is helped up by a gentleman, who then tells the man the story of how he got married. Suddenly, the threat of violence and mystery takes a backseat to a conversation about relationships. It seems flippant, audacious, the exact sort of sneaky gear-shift one expects of the French New Wave, as epitomized by director François Truffaut. And yet, this introduction is the perfect encapsulation of the film's overriding themes: noir and amour. Shoot the Piano Player ("Tirez sur le Pianiste," 1960) is, in one of the great traditions of films by young directors, alive and trembling with the possibilities of cinema. And there are many sequences of such bravado: A flashback of a conversation is broken into a triptych in order to speed along the information contained therein; a singer's lyrics are subtitled in an early form of karaoke; and, most famously, a man suggests that if he's lying, may his mother die in response, the film cuts to his mother falling down dead. And on top of this brilliant and brash style, Shoot the Piano Player is a film about love one that feels as modern as it must have the minute the prints dried
Based on the American novel by David Goodis, Truffaut's film concerns titular pianist Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour). Charlie works at a bar playing the piano with a group, and he enjoys an easygoing relationship with prostitute Clarisse (Michele Mercier). But things are complicated by his brother Chico (Albert Remy), who's led two hit men to Charlie. At the bar, Chico likes to call Charlie "Edouard," and there Charlie distracts the hoods as Chico escapes. Later, while walking waitress Lena (Marie Dubois) home, it appears that the two men have latched on to following Charlie. Charlie has a thing for Lena but has problems acting on it because he's too inside his own head, but the threat of the gangsters forces the two together when they're ratted out by their boss. It turns out that Lena knows who Charlie really is: Edouard Saroyan. As Edouard, he had great success as a pianist, but he left his career behind when he found out his wife Theresa (Nicole Berger) slept with a man to get him his career. This led to the dissolution of their marriage, Edouard removing himself from the spotlight, and eventually taking a false name. Lena quickly assumes the role of matronly wife, hoping to get Charlie to return to his life as Edouard, but this leads to an incident with the club owner that sends them on the run. Charlie has a younger brother he looks after, and when the hit men capture the boy, all parties head to the winter retreat where Charlie's other brothers have holed up in fear of the criminals.
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François Truffaut spoke often of his love of Jean Renoir and Alfred Hitchcock, and his movies often paid homage to his two idols. And if his first film The 400 Blows (1959) was more in line with the humanism that Renoir suggests, then Shoot the Piano Player (his second film) represented a shift towards the genre traditions of Hitch. Nonetheless, no film of Truffaut's was ever a matter of one singular sensibility, and it's the humanism that makes Shoot the Piano Player such a compelling genre piece. Charlie is the cerebral male who, like his modern antecedent Joel Barrish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, finds it hard to escape his thoughts long enough to do the right thing in a relationship. And that's where the opening ties into the whole: The film is as much about the struggle to understand and be with women as it is any genre constructs. Even the hit men talk about their methods of love (both men are pigs), but as amusing as their conversation is, and as much as it may seem an offhand gesture the type of which Quentin Tarantino made famous in Pulp Fiction here these conversations have weight. Charlie is a man who always has complicated relationships with women he loves, which is why his relationship with Clarisse is the only one that doesn't involve danger. For this, Shoot the Piano Player is a dense but brisk 81 minutes that cackles with the delight of both honoring and perverting a genre picture.
The Criterion Collection's two-disc DVD release of Shoot the Piano Player offers a splendid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and the original monaural French audio (with optional English subtitles). This is the second release of the film on DVD, and it's vastly superior to Fox Lorber's single-disc, non-anamorphic release. Disc One offers a commentary by Truffaut scholars Annette Insdorf and Peter Brunette, and the film's amusing theatrical trailer. Disc Two kicks off with two archive interviews featuring comments from François Truffaut on the film: "Cineastes de Notres Temps" (10 min.) from 1965 and "Pour Changer Etoiles et Toiles" (12 min.) from 1982, both in French with optional English subtitles. "Charles Aznavour" (24 min.) and "Marie Dubois" (10 min.) feature 2005 interviews with the film's stars in French with optional English subtitles, while "Raoul Coutard" (14 min.) offers comments from the film's cinematographer (who also supervised the transfer), again in French with English subtitles. Truffaut collaborator "Suzanne Schiffman" (15 min.) was interviewed for the documentary Working with Truffaut in 1986, and the interview footage has been reshaped into a longer piece here, while music historian Jeff Smith contributes an audio essay about "The music of Georges Delerue"(17 min.). The second disc is rounded out by the "Marie Dubois Screen Test"(3 min.), while the booklet offers an essay by Kent Jones, an interview with Truffaut, and the director's comments on Aznavour and Dubois. Dual-DVD keep-case.