I watched Francois Truffaut's 1960 gem SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER again this past July 4th. It seemed, I dunno, wrong. Unpatriotic, even. But then I remembered that the French helped us in our Revolution, and then went off and had one of their own. Ce jour-là, je suis aussi français.
I was also reminded what a unique film this is. A tip of the hat to the American film noir, yes, but yet a Truffaut original. A wildly stylish affair sporting jump cuts, a devil-may-care attitude, and even a nude scene. Might this been a bit much for its original audiences? Some reasons why this film was not a box office draw?
A pianist named Charlie (Charles Aznavour) is framed behind the ivories in a semi-seedy Paris nightclub. He seems sad. There are gangsters hanging around. Charlie's brother's criminal activity again invades his life. He enjoys dalliances with his neighbor, a prostitute (yes, with a heart of gold; she even watches his young son), but life is far from joyous. In earlier, more hopeful days he was a professional musician named Edouard Saroyan. That was before his troubled wife jumped out a window after confessing that perhaps the only reason Edouard got an agent was because she slept with the guy.
A ray of hope? There's an attractive waitress at the club named Lena (Marie Dubois). Charlie likes her, but has significant reservations about how to approach her. As they stroll an avenue after closing one night, we hear his neurotic thoughts: Should I hold her hand? He's like Woody Allen from another era.
The complexity of gender relations forms a great deal of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. The 2 gangsters seen earlier kidnap our would-be couple, engaging them in a tennis match of a conversation about (mainly female) behavior. It's quite funny, the bluntness of one of the men's observations about women as if they are no more than black widows, enticing predators.
This fits nicely into Truffaut's tribute to all the duplicitous dames in American noirs. A sort of heady commentary via highly entertaining exchanges among the principals. The other usual noir elements also get a workout. As the plot develops, Charlie's son is also kidnapped, Charlie stabs (in self-defense) his loutish boss at the club, and he eventually finds himself back with his brothers, awaiting an showdown with guns.
But it's all so distinctively French, so self-conscious, so self-deprecating. I laughed out loud as Charlie, in flashback, shops for books on "How To Beat Shyness", in his efforts to be more assertive. Like those American icons who filled the screen?