Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

François Truffaut | 1hr 32min

If the pulpy crime novel ‘Down There‘ had been translated to Hollywood’s silver screen a few years earlier, it may have looked like a standard film noir, composed of stark shadows and austere characters. Had it been adapted by Jean-Luc Godard, it might have deconstructed the genre with self-conscious humour, giving the middle finger to tradition so that it can play in the sandbox of avant-garde filmmaking. With François Truffaut at the helm, what we get instead is Shoot the Piano Player, sitting somewhere between sweet sincerity and lithe playfulness, and existing far from the realm of cinematic expressionism. Any remnants of noir that might linger in the pensive voiceover of a mysterious man with a troubled past are practically absent in the French auteur’s whimsical slapstick and graceful camera movements, which candidly float through the bustling bar where former concert pianist Charlie now plays honky-tonk tunes to Parisian patrons.

Compared to Truffaut’s autobiographical debut The 400 Blows released only a year earlier, Shoot the Piano Player is a livelier piece of cinema, experimenting with its form a little more freely. After a pair of gangsters kidnap Charlie and Léna, the bar waitress who he shares a budding romance with, they explain how their boss Plyne turned them in, and the film cuts to a black screen framing the bartender in three circles, greedily stroking wads of cash and happily divulging their personal information. Any time a scene begins to edge towards stagnation, Truffaut will happily throw in short, amusing cutaways like these that whisk us away elsewhere. Even as Shoot the Piano Player approaches its climax later, a gag is slipped in mid-conversation when a gangster declares “If I’m lying, may my mother keel over this instant!” The immediate cut to an elderly woman collapsing on the floor would have surely provided some inspiration to Monty Python’s comedic style years later, stepping smoothly away from the narrative to land a brief, effortless punchline.

Comedic cutaways used to great effect, innovating a style of cinematic comedy that would go on to inspire so many other filmmakers including Monty Python.

Just as Truffaut’s editing offers levity, so too does it prove to be integral in telling the heartfelt stories of Charlie’s past and present romances. From a distance, the confused shuffle of hands between him and Léna as they walk together down a street might seem like an awkward interaction, but through some insert shots there is rather a nervous intimacy imbued in his reaching out and her recoil, quietly exploring the boundaries of their young relationship.

Truffaut is a magnificent editor above all else, and recognises the potential of the medium in economically telling these love stories through cutaways without dialogue.

Being the tools of Charlie’s musical craft, his hands often receive this kind of visual emphasis from Truffaut’s camera, wringing out tunes from the bar piano. If we are not dwelling on his hands, then the internal piano hammers are isolated on their own, producing jaunty tunes seemingly of their own accord, or Truffaut will otherwise catch Charlie in creative frames and move the camera around him in a relaxed glide. This may not be his ideal life, but while his hands are sliding across keys he can comfortably disappear into his light-hearted music, becoming nothing more than the mysterious bar musician who brings joy to strangers.

“Who is Charlie Kolfer? All we know is he’s the piano man who’s raising his kid brother and who minds his own business. Your music brings in the locals every night, and the joint takes off.”

Very few close-ups on Charlie’s face as he creates music, choosing instead to identify him with his hands, his piano, and the effect he has on others.
Inspired framing with the grand piano lid dominating the shot, consuming Charlie in his music.

The tragic tale of his past romance he runs from today is divulged through a flashback that dominates the middle section of the film, and which Truffaut dreamily slips into via long dissolves and multiple exposure shots of faces, neon signs, posters, and restaurants, as Léna’s voiceover echoes in the background. While there is usually a light spontaneity in Charlie’s present tense voiceovers that express his unfiltered thoughts, the shift to past tense in this flashback associates him more closely with the traditional noir protagonist, haunted by old mistakes and troubled relationships. Within this fatalistic reflection, truths begin to spill out around Charlie’s real name, Édouard, and his marriage with Thérèse, a woman who regretfully slept with an impresario to earn her husband his career as a concert pianist.

“It was like he’d cut me in two. As if my heart were one thing and my body another. It wasn’t Thérèse who went with him. Just her body, as if I wasn’t there.”

A dreamy transition into the past, layering several images in this multiple exposure shot as if hit by a wave of memory.
A tragic long dissolve from Thérèse’s crumpled body to the article reporting her suicide – Truffaut’s editing is used just as much for drama as it is for comedy.

Édouard’s shock and momentary lapse in judgement initially pushes him to leave the room in cold rejection, though his remorseful return a few seconds later comes too late. A melancholy dissolve leads from Thérèse’s splayed body on the pavement below their apartment to the newspaper article of her death, and pieces of Charlie’s new identity thus begin to crystallise. The shame he carries with him is reflected in his new choice of profession, turning away from concert halls and relegating himself to obscurity in a small bar as both penance and escape.

The gangsters’ conflict with Charlie’s brothers takes up a good portion of the present-day storyline, though Truffaut often frames it as a distraction from his actual priorities, right up to the moment he is unavoidably caught up in their affairs and forced to retreat to his family’s hideout in the mountains with Léna. Back in Paris, the glare of streetlamps and headlights blearily refract through the windscreen as the camera drives outside the city’s boundaries, until a dissolve eases us into the bright, frosty landscapes of the French Alps, where the stage is set for a final shootout.

A drastic shift in lighting as we move from the dark streets of Paris to the white snow of the French Alps. Beautiful location shooting all round from Truffaut.

Here, dark pine trees frame and obscure characters set against the white snow, as the key players tentatively anticipate the impending conflict, and Truffaut’s editing dynamically accelerates towards the tragedy that punctuates its climax – the death of Léna, who was instructed by Charlie to wait outside the cabin at the most inopportune time. It appears that life moves in catastrophic cycles for this reclusive pianist, as for a second time he is forced to look down at his lover’s lifeless body crumpled hopelessly on the ground, destroyed by his own rash misjudgements.

Gorgeous cinematography in the Alps as we accelerate towards the climax, here silhouetting Léna in a distant frame between trees.
Devastating narrative form in the repetition of Charlie’s lovers’ deaths, poetically cycling his life in fatalistic patterns.

When Shoot the Piano Player returns to the bar in its final minutes, it might seem that Charlie has simply returned to pay penance once again, covering his deep pain with cheerful melodies. And indeed, Truffaut does linger on his agile fingers dancing across the keys for a brief, few seconds, absorbing him into his own musical expression, but it is not for long, as the camera soon glides upwards to finish on a still close-up of his pained, wistful face. The tonal blend of comedy and tragedy which the film balances so skilfully in its narrative often makes it seem as if it could conclude on either note, and although there may indeed be a lightness that continues to flow from the pianist’s hands, Truffaut’s camera no longer engages in its falsely merry melodies, choosing instead to reach out with its final shot to the sensitive, sorrowful character hiding behind them.

No more running – a poignant final shot as Truffaut’s camera no longer floats around Charlie or engages in his music, but simply sits in this wistful close-up, letting loneliness seep from the empty right half of the frame.

Shoot the Piano Player is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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