Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player is one of Truffaut's most entertaining and affectionate tributes to the low-budget pulp crime genre, and of the comic films of Chaplin Chaplin and The Marx Brothers that he grew up adoring. It tells the simple story about a classical pianist, who tries to run away from his past after his wife's tragic suicide, and eventually ends up playing piano in a small Parisian dive. When his brother suddenly gets in trouble with bumbling gangsters, he inadvertently gets dragged back into the chaos and is forced to rejoin the life that he once fled. François Truffaut was one of the pioneers of The French New Wave movement which was considered a certain European art form during the late 50s and 60s. The French New Wave was a movement led by a group of young filmmakers that included Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette who were connected to the magazine 'Cahiers du cinema'. The French New Wave was a style that seemed to be personal and freewheeling, where the directors often chose to shoot on location, using natural lighting and often using hand-held cameras which added to the experimental feel of the films. That style can be greatly seen in Shoot the Piano Player, whether it's the plot's use of flashbacks, the creative use of the camera iris, and Truffaut's sudden change of tone in the narrative, from comedy and then back to drama. (One of the stories of the bumbling criminal's mother collapsing of a heart attack quickly comes to mind.) When people talk about The French New Wave, most people think of the things that director Jean-Luc Godard brought to the movement and many overlook Francois Truffaut. Sure, Jean-Luc Godard was much more revolutionary with his shocking technique of jump cuts and his radical political symbolism, but it's Truffaut's more complacent, touching and sentimental touches that seems to gain more power throughout the years and really explore the true nature of why we love going to the movies. Shoot the Piano Player was Truffaut's second film right after his directorial début The 400 Blows, but unfortunately Shoot the Piano Player wasn't as well received by its critics and public. A film journalist asked Truffaut if the film was more comic than tragic and Truffaut replied, "It's both. With Piano Player, I wanted to make women cry and men laugh." The one thing that is quite obvious about the film is Truffaut's love for American cinema and literature, and he wanted to make his very own homage to that genre. The themes in Shoot the Piano Player include all the themes that Truffaut loved so much like doomed romances, kidnappings, gangsters, murder, heists and the shy lead with a mysterious past who unfortunately must return to face it.
Opening shot is a close-up of piano keys playing. A man named Chico is running from a vehicle that is trying to run him down. He trips and falls and a pedestrian sees him and helps him up. Chico thanks the stranger informing him that he must have run into the street light like an idiot. The stranger tells him his wife of 11 years is waiting for him and invites the man to walk with him as the stranger talks about how he met his wife.
Chico says how he wishes he was married and the stranger says that it sounds like he really means it. The stranger says, "It has its good points. We almost didn't make it at first. I'd watch her over breakfast, wondering how to get rid of her." The stranger tells Chico all about marriage and children and he than says to Chico that since they probably won't see each other after this, he feels more comfortable being frank and spilling his guts to him. After the stranger arrives in front of his home he wishes Chico good-bye and goes in.
Chico quickly takes off to a Parisian dive bar to find his younger brother Edouard that he hasn't seen in 4 years. When seeing his brother he asks him for assistance as Edouard corrects him and says that his name is Charlie now, and how he doesn't want to get involved knowing that Chico got himself in trouble once again. Chico tells Charlie, "We pulled a job, these two guys and Richard and me.
They tried to play rough and gip us out of our share."So Richard and I kept the loot and ditched them instead." Charlie asks his brother what the men look like that are chasing him and Charlie walks out with him to the center of the stage and sits down and starts to play the piano. Chico says, "What the hell you doing here anyways? Your throwing you life away. You look great behind that piece of junk. You deserve a concert grand in a packed hall before a cheering crowd, so what gives?"
Charlie says, "I can't be in two places at once." When his brother starts to get loud and create a scene Plyne the boss of the dive steps in to control him. Charlie says to Plyne, "Drop it Plyne. He's sick. I thought I made it clear: Don't get chummy with me. Call me mister." Charlie's brother eventually meets a girl while dancing and right when the two men who are after him enter the lounge, Charlie has his brother escape through the back door.
There is a nice small moment in which an Italian singer sings Framboise the Boby Lapointe song while Charlie is thinking to himself, "They must have gone out the alley. They didn't look like killers. Just wanted to talk business. You can guess what kind. When your brothers got mixed up in something, big dumb Chico takes the fall. Come on, wish him good luck while there's still time. " Charlie than says out loud, "Good luck."
After the bar closes Plyne tells Charlie that the waitress Lena has her eye on him and wishes Leno would look at him like that saying, "I'm not her type. In fact I'm nobody's type. I'm just a big lug and too dumb to make women forget it." Plyne believes no women would like him and says that he is just an ugly mug and Charlie tells him to not be afraid of women and that women aren't poisonous.
Plyne says, "You don't really believe that. I can see you've been through the wringer too, my boy." When Plyne says that Charlie is afraid, Charlie thinks about that word 'afraid' for a moment, realizing it is probably true. When Charlie leaves for the night Lena is outside waiting for him and Lena asks him to walk her home while a jealous Plyne watches the both of them from inside the dive. Charlie wants to hold Lena's hand and put his arm around but he can't find the strength to do it.
Lena lets Charlie know that the guys that were chasing her brother are now following them and the two of them quickly dash off in a different direction so they lose them. After some time, Charlie decides to finally get the nerve and ask Lena out but he comes to find that she already went home, and so he decides to head home as well.
While settling into his apartment and realizing his little brother Fedo is already asleep Charlie gets a knock at the door from a prostitute named Clarisse, who is also his neighbor from across the hall. He welcomes her in to entertain him for the night. She undresses and gets in his bed. Charlie says, "This is how it's done in the movies," as he grabs her and the two have sex under the blankets.
The next morning Clarisse gets up to leave and Charlie says he will see her later that night again. Charlie wakes up Fedo for school and while getting dressed Fedo notices the two men named Momo and Ernest that were after Charlie's brother Chico drive up to the apartment and are waiting for him in their vehicle. Fedo decides to help his brother Charlie so he quickly leaves the apartment and rounds up a few of his neighbor friends as they attack the two men's vehicle with balloons.
While Charlie starts to leave his apartment though Ernest and Momo still catch up to him, and draw a gun forcing him into the car. In the car they try to bribe Charlie on letting them know his brother Chico's whereabouts but Charlie doesn't budge. Ernest has Momo head over to Lena's and abduct her while she was making her way to work. Ernest tells Charlie and Lena that him and Momo got their addresses when they had a drink with their boss Plyne that morning and Plyne gave them the addresses for 50 dollars, 25 for each address.
While Momo and Ernest bicker back and forth on how bad of a driver Ernest is, Ernest looks at lena and asks if he shocks her. Lena says, "Not at all. I've met bastards before. I'm learning something." Ernest says, "I'll tell you: No matter what women say, they all want it." Charlie asks, "Want what?" In a humorous scene Ernest starts to ramble on about women and Charlie says, "If I may, on the subject of women, my father used to say, 'If you've seen one, you've seen them all." Everyone in the car starts to laugh hysterically including Lana.
After that comedic discussion on the topic of females the car is passing an officer and Lena quickly puts her foot on the drivers pedal to speed up the vehicle, so the cop notices them speeding. The cop orders them to pull over which gives Lena and Charlie a chance to leave the car and escape the kidnappers without them being able to threaten or shoot them with the office there. While walking away and Ernest is getting a speeding ticket Ernest yells out to them, "See you soon."
Lena and Charlie take a train back to her place and during the walk there she takes Charlie's hand. When entering Lena's apartment he is surprised to learn she knows his past and his true identity as Edouard Saroyan as he sees a marketing poster of one of his grand shows he did on her wall. Lena says, "Now Charlie plays the piano at Plyne's but there was a time when he didn't. Isn't that right Edouard? There was a time..."
Edouard/Charlie flashes back to a time when he was a struggling pianist. It shows him frequently visit his fiancée Therese at work and they play a game of waitress and customer. He eventually marries her and the two are happily married for several years, but Edouard is struggling finding work as a pianist. During another trip to his wifes restaurant Edouard meets Lars Schmeel an impresario who likes Edouard's work and invites him to come to his apartment the next day.
Edouard makes his way to Schmeel's apartment door and at first hesitates ringing the bell, but a customer opens the door to leave which makes Edouard decide to just walk in. Because of Lars Schmeel, Edouard becomes a respected and famous pianist and after enough hit shows and a rise to star status, his marriage with Therese slowly deteriorates because of all the traveling the two have to do on the road. Edouard talks to Schmeel about his marital difficulties and Schmeel offers to bring his wife to the cocktail reception the next evening and he will talk to her.
Therese doesn't want to attend the party and Edouard loses his temper and shouts at her while at the hotel. Therese says, "I'm making you unhappy, aren't I? I know it's wrong but I can't help myself. Lost in the night, you can't stop the shadows from closing in. It gets darker and darker. There's no way out. You don't know what to do. I think there's only one thing I can do. Say goodbye and go."
Before Edouard leaves Theresa makes a startling confession and tells Edouard that she offered to sleep with Lars Schmeel if he would take her husband up on becoming a pianist. Therese says, "You know how a spider works? It was like he'd cut me in two. As if my heart were one thing and my body another. It wasn't Theresa who went with him. Just her body, as if I wasn't there. I was with you. I was leading you on the concert stage. He'd rented a room near the restaurant that afternoon. Then one evening you tell me the news: The contract is signed. What you did yesterday stays with you forever. That's why I won't let you touch me. Not this filth."
Edouard wants to comfort his wife but he is angry with her that she kept this secret from him and so he decides to instead turn and leave the apartment. But while making his way down the hallway he changes his mind and turns around and rushes back to the hotel room, only to find Theresa has plunged herself off the balcony and to her death.
Lena sums of what she knows about Edouard saying, "You disappeared and started over. Edouard Saroyan became Charlie Koller. You visited your brothers in the snow and asked them to let you have Fido. One day you ended up at the bar. They were happy to have you sweep out the old dive. There was a beat-up wreck of a piano in the corner. You couldn't stop looking at it, looking away looking back again. One day you asked Plyne. 'Mind if I play a bit?' Who is Charlie Koller? 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."
Edouard and Lena embrace and make love with one another and he spends the night at her place. The next morning Edouard tells Lena that he thinks Plyne likes her. That's all she needs she says and says she loves Edouard because he is neither a ladies man or a tough guy. Lena comes up with the idea for the two of them to quit Plyne's and for Edouard to work, audition and give concerts again. "Charlies dead. Long live Edouard," she tells him. Before leaving her place Lena tells Edouard, "All I ask of a man is to tell me when it's over. Not one ever has. When you don't love me anymore, tell me."
While leaving school Fido is chased by Momo and Richard and they track him down at Therese's and kidnap him there. Edouard and Lena head to Plyne's dive and Lena tells Plyne the two of them are quitting, especially because Plyne sold the two of them out. Lena starts to insult Plyne and mock him, calling him a coward. Plyne gets furious on how she is treating him and Edouard feels bad because he knows Plyne is deeply in love with her and that he's just a poor slob who never gotten anywhere in life. But Edouard decides to step in when Plyne is about to smack her and the two get physical inside the dive as Plyne pulls a knife on Edouard.
They continue their way outside and decide to stop fighting, but Plyne can't show his face inside unless it looks like he won so he starts to strangle Edouard and says, "I don't love Lena anymore. She used words unworthy of her. If she had a soul, she wouldn't have been so vulgar. She's a slut. A woman is pure, delicate, fragile. Woman is supreme. Woman is magic. Charlie boy, sorry for getting familiar...but Charlie boy, you're about to die."
Edouard takes the knife that Plyne dropped on the ground and stabs Plyne killing him. Lena and the other co workers carry Edouard and hide him down stairs knowing Charlie did it in self-defense. Edouard tells Lena to go get his little brother Fido and when Lena heads over to Edouard's apartment she hears from Clarisse that Fido was kidnapped.
While Fido is in the car with Momo and Ernest and Momo says that Fido sounds like a dog's name. Momo than says, "Here's a tip: Never leave the door open. My pop used to say, 'If someone knocks, assume it's a murderer. If it's just a robber, you'll be happy."
The two kidnappers start showing Fido all their cool accessories and when Momo lies about his scarf being Japanese Fido says that there is no reason to lie about that. Momo says "If I'm lying, may my mother kneel over this instant." (You than see a funny clip of her falling down dead.) When the authorities arrive at Plyne's dive, Lena sneaks Edouard out the back and they get in her landlady's car and drive off to head towards his brothers home across state.
When Edouard hears about Fido's kidnapping he says that he should have seen it coming. Momo and Ernest's car dies and so they push it to the nearest gas station and try getting it to start-up again, while Edouard and Lena drive unnoticeably past them. Edouard asks Lena to turn on the radio and they make their way across the state and into the snowy landscapes, while Edouard drinks as much as he can from a bottle of alcohol that Lena has brought for him to numb his pains.
When arriving to his brother's cabin which is located on the top of a high snowy hill, Edouard tells Lena for them to split up and for her to take the car back to her landlady. Edouard thinks to himself, "Parting would be easier if she'd let you drink the whole bottle." When walking up the snowy hill Edouard runs into his other brother Richard who informs him that he's hiding his brother Chico inside the home.
When Edouard sees Chico, Chico tells him he has the loot they stole for the exchange of their younger brother Fido, and are just waiting for Momo and Ernest to arrive for the transfer. Charlie lets his brother know that he killed someone and his brother says that Charlie is finally just like one of them. Chico says, "You had to come back, Charlie, cause we're all alike...you, me, Richard, even Fido." Chico and Richard head to bed but leave Charlie a gun just in case the kidnappers arrive, as Charlie thinks, "So now you're a killer in a family of thieves."
The morning arrives and Lena returns to tell Edouard that the charges of him killing Plyne have been dropped because of self-defense with the neighbors helping to back up his story. Because Momo and Ernest haven't arrived like he thought they would, he now believes they have another plan and so Charlie decides to head back to town with Lena. surprisingly enough, the kidnappers do arrive and when Momo, Ernest and Fido head up the hill and towards the cabin, Fido makes a run for it.
Chico and Richard see them approaching the home and they start to fire at them from their windows, as Momo and Ernest return the fire. Unfortunately Lena gets caught in the crossfire and Momo shoots her, making her fall and roll down the snowy hill. Fido and Charlie run up to Lena but it's too late, and she is dead.
The last scene of the film shows Edouard being back at the dive, continuing to work there under the false name of Charlie, as he continues to play piano for the townspeople.
Shoot the Piano Player was originally a novel titled Down There by David Goodis. The film shares the novel's bleak plot about a man hiding from his shattered life by doing the only thing he knows how to do, while remaining unable to escape the past. However, Truffaut's work resolves itself into both a tribute to the American genre of literary and cinematic noir and a meditation on the relationship between art and commercialism.
Truffaut significantly changes Charlie's personality in the film because originally, Goodis' Edward Webster Lynn (who Truffaut adapts as Charlie) is pictured as a relatively strong, self-confident guy who has chosen his solitude whereas Truffaut’s Charlie Kohler has found his isolation inevitably; he was always shy, withdrawn, reclusive.
Truffaut first read David Goodis's novel in the mid-1950s while shooting Les Mistons when his wife Madeleine Morgenstern read it and recommended it to him. He immediately loved the book's dialogue and poetic tone and showed it to producer Pierre Braunberger, who bought the rights. Truffaut later met Goodis in New York City, where the novelist gave Truffaut a vintage viewfinder from his brief experience as a 2nd Unit Director on a U.S. film. Truffaut said he made the film in reaction to the success of The 400 Blows, which he considered to be very French and he wanted to show his influence from American films.
He later told a reporter that he wanted to shock the audience that had loved The 400 Blows by making a film that would "please the real film nuts and them alone." He previously had several ideas for films about children, but was afraid of repeating himself in his second film. He told a reporter, "I refused to be a prisoner of my own first success. I discarded temptation to renew that success by choosing a great subject. I turned my back on what everyone waited for and I took my pleasure as my only rule of conduct."
Truffaut began writing the script with Marcel Moussy, who had co-written The 400 Blows. Moussey said that he didn't understand the book and attempted to establish clear social roots for the characters. Truffaut disagreed, wanting to keep the film loose and abstract; Moussey left after a few weeks and Truffaut wrote the script himself. One problem Truffaut had was that he considered the Goodis novel to be too chaste and he decided to make the characters less heroic.
The book's main character Charlie is also much stronger in the book and Truffaut called it a Sterling Hayden type and Truffaut decided to go the opposite direction and make the protagonist weaker and the female characters strong. Truffaut was also influenced by French writer Jacques Audiberti while writing the film, such as in his treatment of the character Plyne. Truffaut also used some scenes from other Goodis novels, such as the early scene where Chico bumps into a lamp-post and has a conversation with a stranger.
Truffaut had wanted to work with Charles Aznavour since seeing him act in Georges Franju's Head Against the Wall and wrote the role with Aznavour in mind. Child actor Richard Kanayan had appeared in The 400 Blows (he's the child who keeps ripping the paper out of his spiral notebook) and was always making the crew laugh, so Truffaut cast him as Charlie's youngest brother. Nicole Berger was an old friend of Truffaut's and also Pierre Braunberger's stepdaughter. Michèle Mercier was a dancer who had appeared in a few films before this role.
Albert Remy had appeared in The 400 Blows and Truffaut wanted to show the actor's comedic side after his uncomic performance in the previous film. Truffaut also cast actor and novelist Daniel Boulanger and theatrical actor Claude Mansard as the two gangsters in the film. Serge Davri was a music hall performer who had for years recited poems while breaking dishes over his head. Truffaut considered him crazy, but funny, and cast him as Plyne. Truffaut rounded out the cast with Catherine Lutz in the role of Mammy and Lutz had never acted before and worked at a local movie theater.
Truffaut first noticed Marie Dubois when he came across her headshot during pre-production and attempted to set up several meetings with the actress, but Dubois never showed up. Truffaut finally saw Dubois perform on a TV show and immediately wanted to cast her shortly before filming began. Dubois's real name was Claudine Huzé and Truffaut changed it to Marie Dubois because she reminded him of the titular character of his friend Jacques Audiberti's novel Marie Dubois. Audiberti later approved of the actresses new stage name.
Truffaut later told a reporter that Dubois was "neither a dame nor a sex kitten; she is neither lively nor "saucey. But she's a perfectly worthy young girl with whom it's conceivable you could fall in love and be loved in return." She would also later on have a small role in Truffaut's Jules and Jim, as the impulsive girl who does the infamous 'steam engine' trick with her cigarette.
Filming took place from November 30, 1959 until January 22, 1960 with some re-shoots for two weeks in March. Locations included a café called A la Bonne Franquette on the rue Mussard in Levallois, Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, around Grenoble and throughout Paris. The film' budget was 890,062.95 francs, whereas The 400 Blows had been a tense shoot for Truffaut, his second film was a happy experience for the cast and crew after Truffaut's first success.
Truffaut had wanted to make it as a big budget studio film, but was unable to get sufficient funds and the film was made on the streets instead. Truffaut filled the film with homages to such American B movie directors like Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller. (Both of the directors have always been a personal favorite of his and Jean-Luc Godard) During the shooting Truffaut realized that he didn't like gangsters and tried to make their character more and more comical. Pierre Braunberger initially didn't like Boby Lapointe's songs and said that he couldn't understand what Lapointe was saying which than inspired Truffaut to add subtitles with a bouncing ball.
The film's script changed constantly during shooting. Truffaut said that "In Shoot the Piano Player I wanted to break with the linear narrative and make a film where all the scenes would please me. I shot without any criteria." Truffaut's stylized and self-reflexive melodrama employs the hallmarks of French New Wave cinema: extended voice-overs, out-of-sequence shots, and sudden jump cuts. The film's cinematography by Raoul Coutard was often grainy and kinetic, reflecting the emotional state of the characters, such as the scene in which Charlie hesitates before ringing a doorbell.
Among the films referenced in Shoot the Piano Player are Hollywood B movies from the 1940s, the techniques of using an iris from silent films, Charlie being named after Charlie Chaplin and having four brothers (and one named Chico) being a reference to the Marx Brothers, and the film's structure and flashbacks being similar to the structure of Citizen Kane.
Truffaut later stated that "In spite of the burlesque idea to certain scenes, it's never a parody (because I detest parody, except when it begin to rival the beauty of what it is parodying). For me its something very precise that I would call a respectful pastiche of the Hollywood B films from which I learned so much." This was also Truffaut's first film to include a murder, which would often become a plot point in many of his films and was influenced by Truffaut's admiration of director Alfred Hitchcock.
Truffaut stated that the theme of the film is "love and the relations between men and women" and later claimed that "the idea behind Le Pianiste 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. It's a grab bag."
Like The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player was shot in CinemaScope, which Truffaut described as being like an aquarium which allows the actors to move around the frame more naturally.
FRENCH NEW WAVE
The New Wave was a blanket term coined by critics for a group of French filmmakers of the late 1950s and 1960s.
Although never a formally organized movement, the New Wave filmmakers were linked by their self-conscious rejection of the literary period pieces being made in France and written by novelists, their spirit of youthful iconoclasm, the desire to shoot more current social issues on location, and their intention of experimenting with the film form. "New Wave" is an example of European art cinema. Many also engaged in their work with the social and political upheavals of the era, making their radical experiments with editing, visual style and narrative part of a general break with the conservative paradigm.
Using light-weight portable equipment, hand-held cameras and requiring little or no set up time, the New Wave way of film-making presented a documentary style. The films exhibited direct sounds on film stock that required less light. Filming techniques included fragmented, freeze-frames, discontinuous editing, and long takes. The combination of objective realism, subjective realism, and authorial commentary created a narrative ambiguity in the sense that questions that arise in a film are not answered in the end.
Alexandre Astruc's manifesto, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo", published in L`Ecran, on 30 March 1948 outlined some of the ideas that were later expanded upon by François Truffaut and the Cahiers du cinéma. It argues that "cinema was in the process of becoming a new mean of expression on the same level as painting and the novel: a form in which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel. This is why I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of the 'camera-stylo."
Some of the most prominent pioneers among the group, including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, began as critics for the famous film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Cahiers co-founder and theorist André Bazin was a prominent source of influence for the movement. By means of criticism and editorialization, they laid the groundwork for a set of concepts, revolutionary at the time, which the American film critic Andrew Sarris called the 'auteur theory.'
Cahiers du cinéma writers critiqued the classic "Tradition of Quality" style of French Cinema. Bazin and Henri Langlois, founder and curator of the Cinémathèque Française, were the dual godfather figures of the movement. These men of cinema valued the expression of the director's personal vision in both the film's style and script.
The 'auteur theory' holds that the director is the "author" of his movies, with a personal signature visible from film to film. They praised movies by Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo, and made then-radical cases for the artistic distinction and greatness of Hollywood studio directors such as Orson Welles, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. The beginning of the New Wave was to some extent an exercise by the Cahiers writers in applying this philosophy to the world by directing movies themselves.
Truffaut, with The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard, with Breathless (1960) had unexpected international successes, both critical and financial, that turned the world's attention to the activities of the New Wave and enabled the movement to flourish. Part of their technique was to portray characters not readily labeled as protagonists in the classic sense of audience identification.
The auteurs of this era owe their popularity to the support they received with their youthful audience. Most of these directors were born in the 1930s and grew up in Paris, relating to how their viewers might be experiencing life. They were considered the first film generation to have a "film education", knowledge of and references to film history. With high concentration in fashion, urban professional life, and all-night parties, the life of France's youth was being exquisitely captured.
The French New Wave was popular roughly between 1958 and 1964, although New Wave work existed as late as 1973. The socio-economic forces at play shortly after World War II strongly influenced the movement. Politically and financially drained, France tended to fall back on the old popular pre-war traditions. One such tradition was straight narrative cinema, specifically classical French film.
The movement has its roots in rebellion against the reliance on past forms (often adapted from traditional novelistic structures), criticizing in particular the way these forms could force the audience to submit to a dictatorial plot-line. They were especially against the French "cinema of quality", the type of high-minded, literary period films held in esteem at French film festivals, often regarded as 'untouchable' by criticism.
New Wave critics and directors studied the work of western classics and applied new avant garde stylistic direction. The low-budget approach helped filmmakers get at the essential art form and find what was, to them, a much more comfortable and contemporary form of production. Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and many other forward-thinking film directors were held up in admiration while standard Hollywood films bound by traditional narrative flow were strongly criticized. French New Wave were also influenced by Italian Neorealism and classical Hollywood cinema.
The French New Wave featured unprecedented methods of expression, such as long tracking shots (like the famous traffic jam sequence in Godard's 1967 film Week End). Also, these movies featured existential themes, such as stressing the individual and the acceptance of the absurdity of human existence. Filled with irony and sarcasm, the films also tend to reference other films.
Many of the French New Wave films were produced on tight budgets; often shot in a friend's apartment or yard, using the director's friends as the cast and crew. Directors were also forced to improvise with equipment (for example, using a shopping cart for tracking shots). The cost of film was also a major concern; thus, efforts to save film turned into stylistic innovations. For example, in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, after being told the film was too long and he must cut it down to one hour and a half he decided (on the suggestion of Jean-Pierre Melville) to remove several scenes from the feature using jump cuts, as they were filmed in one long take. Parts that did not work were simply cut from the middle of the take, a practical decision and also a purposeful stylistic one.
The cinematic stylings of French New Wave brought a fresh look to cinema with improvised dialogue, rapid changes of scene, and shots that go beyond the common 180° axis. The camera was used not to mesmerize the audience with elaborate narrative and illusory images, but to play with the expectations of cinema. The techniques used to shock and awe the audience out of submission and were so bold and direct that Jean-Luc Godard has been accused of having contempt for his audience. His stylistic approach can be seen as a desperate struggle against the mainstream cinema of the time, or a degrading attack on the viewer's supposed naivety. Either way, the challenging awareness represented by this movement remains in cinema today. Effects that now seem either trite or commonplace, such as a character stepping out of their role in order to address the audience directly, were radically innovative at the time.
Classic French cinema adhered to the principles of strong narrative, creating what Godard described as an oppressive and deterministic aesthetic of plot. In contrast, New Wave filmmakers made no attempts to suspend the viewer's disbelief; in fact, they took steps to constantly remind the viewer that a film is just a sequence of moving images, no matter how clever the use of light and shadow. The result is a set of oddly disjointed scenes without attempt at unity; or an actor whose character changes from one scene to the next; or sets in which onlookers accidentally make their way onto camera along with extras, who in fact were hired to do just the same.
At the heart of New Wave technique is the issue of money and production value. In the context of social and economic troubles of a post-World War II France, filmmakers sought low-budget alternatives to the usual production methods, and were inspired by the generation of Italian Neorealists before them. Half necessity and half vision, New Wave directors used all that they had available to channel their artistic visions directly to the theatre.
Finally, the French New Wave, as the European modern Cinema, is focused on the technique as style itself. A French New Wave film-maker is first of all an author who shows in its film his own eye on the world. On the other hand the film as the object of knowledge challenges the usual transitivity on which all the other cinema was based, "undoing its cornerstones: space and time continuity, narrative and grammatical logics, the self-evidence of the represented worlds." In this way the film-maker passes "the essay attitude, thinking – in a novelist way – on his own way to do essays."
The Left Bank, or Rive Gauche, group is a contingent of filmmakers associated with the French New Wave, first identified as such by Richard Roud. The corresponding "right bank" group is constituted of the more famous and financially successful New Wave directors associated with Cahiers du cinéma. Unlike the Cahiers these directors were older and less movie-crazed. They tended to see cinema akin to other arts, such as literature. However they were similar to the New Wave directors in that they practiced cinematic modernism. Their emergence also came in the 1950s and they also benefited from the youthful audience. The two groups, however, were not in opposition; Cahiers du cinéma advocated Left Bank cinema.
Left Bank directors include Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda. Roud described a distinctive "fondness for a kind of Bohemian life and an impatience with the conformity of the Right Bank, a high degree of involvement in literature and the plastic arts, and a consequent interest in experimental filmmaking", as well as an identification with the political left. The filmmakers tended to collaborate with one another, Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras are also associated with the group. The nouveau roman movement in literature was also a strong element of the Left Bank style, with authors contributing to many of the films. Left Bank films include La Pointe Courte, Hiroshima mon amour, La jetée, Last Year at Marienbad, and Trans-Europ-Express.
When Francois Truffaut’s first feature The 400 Blows made its debut in 1959, critics the world over hailed its low-key semidocumentary style in telling its tale of a troubled, melancholy youth. You can imagine then the confusion these same critics felt the next year when confronted with the French filmmaker’s next work, Shoot the Piano Player. A wild mixture of gangster thriller, slapstick comedy, and bittersweet romance, Shoot the Piano Player was one of the signal works of the French “New Wave,” but it took a while for some critics and audiences to get used to a film that flew in the face of traditional dramatic expectations so broadly and mixed genre elements so freely.
Hailed today as a modern classic, Shoot the Piano Player is a pluperfect example of a film “ahead of its time.” Based on a novel by David Goodis (an American “pulp” writer beloved by the French), it tells of an introverted pianist who after his wife’s suicide (an event for which he holds himself responsible) forgoes a promising concert career to play rinkytink piano in a small-time dive. Thinking himself freed from the horrors of the outside world, he finds himself face to face with them again as his criminal brother and the woman he loves draw him—by different routes—into a web of underworld intrigue. A dire scenario on paper, on screen this same action is transformed by Truffaut into a work that is by turns romantic, suspenseful, and—oddly—uproariously funny. Like Godard’s Breathless it captures perfectly the worldweary alienation and flip cynical humor that were the hallmarks of early sixties filmmaking.
In a way, what makes Shoot the Piano Player so successful is, ironically, the very thing its detractors objected to so strenuously—its masterful mixture of different dramatic tones. In the film’s opening scene, for example (Chapter 1), we’re flung right into the midst of action as the camera follows a running figure being pursued down a street by unseen assailants. Before we’re even told who this man is, we meet someone else—a passerby who collides with the man on the run. The two men talk and we learn the passerby’s story—he’s an ordinary man on his way home to a wife he loves very much. This figure vanishes from the action, never to be seen again. But the tale he tells sets a mood of melancholy regret that is central to everything Shoot the Piano Player is trying to evoke.
This sense of action seen from a slightly off-kilter angle continues in the next scene as we learn of the identity of the running figure—he’s the brother to the film’s hero Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour). Now we’re in the bar where this small, timid man plies his trade—a rowdy place filled with characters out of a Mack Sennett slapstick two-reeler (Chapters 2 and 3). The mood changes again to romance when Charlie discovers Lena (Marie Dubois), the brassy barmaid who loved him from afar (Chapter 4). It goes back again to comedy when the gunmen pursuing Charlie’s brother put the squeeze on Charlie and Lena (Chapter 6). Then the mystery melodrama takes over (Chapters 7 and 8) when a flashback reveals the truth about Charlie and the circumstances that brought him to his withdrawn state.
If you have been following the twists and turns of the film’s rapid mood swings up to this point, you’ll have no trouble following things straight through to the film’s extraordinary finale—a shootout at a mountain cabin right out of High Sierra. But that Humphrey Bogart classic did not feature gunmen who behaved like the Keystone Kops. And it did not sport a visual delicacy suggestive of the finest work of D. W. Griffith.
In the last analysis, Shoot the Piano Player is a completely unique motion picture. From the originality of the audition scene (Chapter 7), where Charlie’s doubts about himself are dramatized with stark visual simplicity (rather than the usual route of verbal monologue), to the tart cheekiness of its many “in” jokes (the watch the gunmen carry plays the theme from Lola Montès), Truffaut teaches us to expect the unexpected. He is helped immeasurably by the performances of Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, and Nicole Berger in the principal roles, with Raoul Coutard’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Georges Delerue’s unforgettable score perfectly complementing the overall atmosphere.
Taking us to the heart of existential anguish, Shoot the Piano Player is never grim. It may show us the dark underside of city life, but it is somehow quite unsordid. Daring to make us laugh at people in decidedly unfunny circumstances, the film manages to catch that laughter in mid-air and overlay it with a sense of sadness—without killing the joke. The story may be simple, then characters easy to comprehend, but an atmosphere of mystery—about people, their lives, their sense of self—remains, making Shoot the Piano Player a film of enduring fascination.
Recently, I was talking with a group of friends, and somehow the subject turned to great directors we found overrated. At a certain point, someone mentioned François Truffaut. I just don’t get it, my colleague said, referring to the tonnage of praise heaped on Truffaut throughout his short life and beyond.
This is a well-worn complaint, and here’s how it goes: Truffaut was too complacent, too precious, too superficially cinephilic, too sentimental about children, and far too willing to let his extraordinary cinematic fluency carry what would otherwise have been so much inconsequential bourgeois fluff. Let it be said that this position is rather heavily dependent on a comparison between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and between their respective approaches to politics and narrative during the crunch moment of the late sixties—Godard the revolutionary antinarrative firebrand versus Truffaut the apolitical storytelling lapdog. As May ’68 and its polemical extremes have faded into the distance, Godard’s cinema has retained much of its power, while his politics have come to seem modish and fairly ridiculous. Meanwhile, Truffaut’s body of work has only become more impressive with each passing year. His often remarked facility with the language of cinema, as evident in his great films as in his minor ones, now seems less noteworthy than his daring sense of speed, his attraction to complicated emotional states that few of his colleagues would even touch, and the always remarkable proximity of life and death in his work. Not to mention the continual sense of surprise.
If there is a skeleton key to Truffaut’s oeuvre, it is Shoot the Piano Player, the film in which all of his assorted gifts and preoccupations are in play and meshed into a uniquely idiosyncratic whole. The film offers powerful evidence of his love of American cinema and literature (this is far and away the most successful of his five adaptations of American pulp fiction), as well as of his career-long concerns with doomed romances and hardened but spirited children. There is that wonderful speed, a pleasure in and of itself, that amounts to a kind of worldview—actions, objects, places, and sensations glimpsed and seized on, almost spontaneously forming a vivid afterimage in the mind’s eye. And his high-velocity storytelling is intimately tied to the feeling of impending mortality, the sense of every given moment in time coming and going, never to return. As for surprise, Shoot the Piano Player is about as unpredictable from one moment to the next as any film I know—from the subtitled singer (Boby Lapointe, who was introduced to Truffaut by the writer Jacques Audiberti) to the expiring mother. Most famously of all, it is a film about a type of emotional reticence that is almost too delicate to pin down in words. To call Shoot the Piano Player the story of a “shy person,” as Truffaut himself did, is only to touch on the emotional depths of Charles Aznavour’s Charlie Koller/Edouard Saroyan. Perhaps he is less shy than hesitant at the moment of truth, forever surging with inspiration only to halt and retreat into doubtful reflection. It is a rhythm of life to which many of us are accustomed but to which few of us would admit, and Truffaut was far ahead of his time in building an entire movie (let alone a crime movie!) around this tricky emotional dynamic. Aznavour’s piano player anticipates a whole range of modern movie characters, from Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow (Truffaut was the first choice of screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman to direct Bonnie and Clyde, on the basis of Shoot the Piano Player) to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle to Robert Forster’s aging bail bondsman in Jackie Brown to the eternally reticent heroes of André Téchiné and Arnaud Desplechin. At this point, it must be said that Truffaut and Aznavour’s creation seems no less fresh today than it did in 1960.
One thing’s for sure—it seems far less bewildering half a century later, at least to French viewers. “Is the film more comic than tragic?” a journalist asked Truffaut, following the film’s disappointing to disastrous reception by the critics and the public (not to mention the censors). “It’s both,” he answered. “With Piano Player, I wanted to make women cry and men laugh.” A flippant answer to a typically single-minded journalist’s question, but the sureness of the response is matched by the sureness of the execution of the film itself. There is nothing tentative or unachieved in what is, after all, the sophomore effort of a young director. “How sure is Truffaut’s command of cinematic language!” Joseph McBride once wrote of Fahrenheit 451; and the same could be said of the director’s abilities with actors, narrative, and the balance of endlessly shifting moods—in this case, antic comedy, ruminative reserve, romantic longing, and tenebrous regret.
In the spring of 1959, Truffaut was hard at work with Godard on an adaptation of Jacques Cousseau’s Hot Weather, to star Bernadette Lafont. At the last minute, reckoning that neither French cinema nor the new wave needed yet another film about young love, he switched gears and turned to David Goodis’s 1956 novel Down There, published in France as part of the Série noire collection. Goodis, whose novels have provided source material for filmmakers as disparate as Delmer Daves (Dark Passage), Jacques Tourneur (Nightfall), Jean-Jacques Beineix (The Moon in the Gutter), and Samuel Fuller (Street of No Return), was a favorite of Truffaut’s. He found in Goodis a singular mixture of the hard-boiled, the romantic, and the fantastic. “At a certain point,” Truffaut said of Goodis’s books, “they go beyond the usual gangster story and become fairy tales.” Truffaut was also enchanted by the fact that no matter what transpires in the stories—murder, kidnapping, suicide—“the men speak only of women, and the women speak only of men.” Truffaut’s idea was to marry Goodis to the stop-start rhythms of the comic novelist Raymond Queneau, creating a film that was “practically a musical.” This unusual idea caused him no small headache during the editing, due less to confusion than to nervousness at trying to pull off something so new.
Truffaut said that it was a single image from Goodis’s novel—the car silently approaching the house in the snow, where Saroyan’s crazy brothers are holed up—that sparked him to make the film, and Truffaut and cinematographer Raoul Coutard do indeed give the image a very special kind of quaintly miniaturized beauty. But I have a feeling that it was the image of Aznavour himself in the lead, complemented by the heartbreakingly beautiful Claudine Huzé (Truffaut gave her the stage name Marie Dubois) as the devoted and doomed Léna, that turned all the lights green for him. In Aznavour, he saw a countenance that recalled Saint Francis. But it’s a sure bet that he also saw what his friends recognized right away—a face and a charmingly reserved manner that recalled his own. Somehow, the mixture of shyness and confidence in the figure of the forlorn piano player provides us with a perfect mirror for Truffaut himself, whose films are so rich, vibrant, and eminently enjoyable that one is continually caught off guard by the realization of their complexity, their bravery, and their emotional depths.
François Truffaut was one of the pioneers of The French New Wave movement which was considered a certain European art form during the late 50s and 60s. The French New Wave was a movement led by a group of young filmmakers that included Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette who were connected to the magazine 'Cahiers du cinema'. The French New Wave was a style that seemed to be personal and freewheeling, where the directors often chose to shoot on location, using natural lighting and often using hand-held cameras which added to the experimental feel of the films.
That style can be greatly seen in Shoot the Piano Player, whether it's the plot's use of flashbacks, the creative use of the camera iris (like for instance when Momo and Ernest are bribing Plyne for Lena and Charlie's addresses) and Truffaut's sudden change of tone in the narrative, from comedy and then back to drama. (Momo's mother collapsing of a heart attack quickly comes to mind.) Truffaut's love for silent films and of comic absurdity is not only shown by Truffaut purposely naming the main character Charlie because of the great Charlie Chaplin, but of his comedic portrayal of the gangsters.
The character's of Momo and Ernest seem to be created by Truffaut with such great relish and delight and hearing them bicker back on forth about the driving styles of Ernest, their obnoxious views on women or that Momo's tie is Japanese, are really quite entertaining. Instead of Truffaut making the villains threatening and intimidating, he chose to make them more bumbling and not so bright stooges.
François Truffaut has made some of the greatest films of all time. He did a film which was a love letter about the inner workings of the movie industry titled, Day for Night which ironically stars Truffaut as a film director. The Last Metro tells a story about an actress married to a Jewish theater owner who she must keep hidden from the Nazis while doing both of their jobs. A personal favorite of mine is Jules and Jim which tells the tragic romance between two best friends who have been in love with the same woman over the years and the effect she has on both their lives.
And finally The 400 Blows which not only is one of the greatest films in the world but the one that revolutionized The French New Wave. Truffaut was always known as a very compassionate man, who had such a passion and love for films that while even directing found time to write about other films and directors, which his personal favorite was Alfred Hitchcock, where he wrote a classic book-length, film-by-film interview with the man and the two actually became very good friends. Starting out as a critic Truffaut decided to want to make films of his own after seeing Orson Welles noir classic Touch of Evil at the Expo 58 which then inspired him to make his feature film début in 1959 with The 400 Blows.
Truffaut over the time of filming Shoot the Piano Player was finding it cinematically more entertaining when the film became more comedic than serious, which I find very intriguing. It seems like in this day of age, movies are becoming more and more grim and serious, and have less comedic overtones. I find that quite unusual since the movies were originally created to entertain us, and make us laugh. Who knew remakes of classical heroes like Robin Hood and Batman would be so grim, brooding and be taken completely serious? When translating Goodis's hard-boiled book Truffaut made a statement about the story he was filming saying, "At a certain point, they go beyond the usual gangster story and become fairy tales." Truffaut was so taken by the idea that even a film that would include such grim moments and ideas like murder, suicide, and kidnapping, could be light-hearted, comic and greatly entertaining. Even with all these horrific acts that occur within the story, Truffaut stated that at the end of the film,"The men speak only of women and the women speak only of men," Truffaut's love for noir is clearly evident in the film as well, as the main character is a mysterious enigma with an ambiguous past, and it will be only time when his past catches up with him which will lead to tragic results. The only difference with Charlie than lets say the character's of Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, is that Charlie isn't so much a tough guy, but more a shy and confident enigma, that I can see probably greatly intrigued Truffaut to make the picture. Truffaut said that it was a single image from Goodis's novel that made him decide to want to make the movie. It was the part with the car silently approaching the house in the snow and his sensational cinematographer Raoul Coutard gave that ending shootout a tranquilent beauty. Like most great movies, they're no real villains or heroes within the story, and the subplot of the devoted wife Therese and her unhappiness within herself, her marriage and her tragic suicide was something that greatly saddened me. Interestingly enough, I was more intrigued in several of the smaller characters more so than the main characters. I was intrigued with the sad character of Plyne, and his inability to find love and even learn to love himself, and I was intrigued by young Fido, and how hard it must be to be to be raised in a home without a proper mother and father. But the most intriguing part of the film for me was the subplot of Charlie's deteriorating romance with Therese and I only wished they could have explored that part of his life more. But this is a gangster picture and less a chamber drama, so I understand why Truffaut decided to pull back from that story and keep the action going. (He will explore the complex dysfunctional themes of relationships later in Jules and Jim.) Shoot the Piano Player is one of Truffaut's most entertaining and poignant works, and is the very proof on why he originally liked going to the movies in the first place.