[Shoot the Piano Player is now playing through Thursday, September 11th at Manhattan’s Film Forum. Click here for more information.]
Why is François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) timeless? Because Truffaut had the foresight to not film a straight pastiche of David Goodis’ novel Down There—the resulting film even influenced then-editor Barry Gifford to choose Truffaut’s title when reissuing the book on the Black Lizard label in the early 1980s. Truffaut’s movie had, by then, become better known than Goodis’ source novel! Why is that? Because Truffaut only kept the novel’s general scenario, main characters, and hard-boiled tone, along with his sense of appreciation and admiration of what he perceived as ’poetic situations’ in Goodis’ prose. (At the time, I think Truffaut connected with Goodis’ quirky personality since he too probably thought of himself as an oddball.)
Using that as an impetus for his second feature film, Truffaut then drew on his own introspective personality, his observations of French gangsters from his youth, his people-watching in public spaces, and his love of movies, especially American ones (many of which he saw as a critic for the French film journal Cahiers Du Cinéma). Although Shoot the Piano Player was not fully appreciated, let alone completely comprehended, by the audiences of its day, Truffaut offered a refreshing example (one that still endures today) of how narrative filmmaking can rely more on a director’s personal inspiration than word-for-word adherence to a script. In other words, a film should be inventive and reflect the personality of its director, rather than just be an execution of transparent genre tropes and little else.
Raoul Coutard’s cinematography is remarkable, especially in light of his admission that quite a few unfortunate mishaps occurred during the shooting and lab processing of the film. But it only adds to the unique look and vibe of Shoot the Piano Player that these less-than-perfect shots made it into the final cut. The “happy accidents” make up a large part of the film’s cinematographic style. Truffaut didn’t obsess with craftsmanship and perfect execution—instead he focused on inventing different ways to express key moments of the story through the editing of Coutard’s different shot coverages. Truffaut didn’t count on the perfect take since he intended to create the moment through montage editing and narration. Sometimes Truffaut let circumstance determine how the scene would play out, such as when the outdoor lighting, drenched by rain, started to burn out during the opening scene. He still kept the underlit images in the final cut. When composing a shot Truffaut often took input from actors, as when Aznavour entered a water closet as a way to smooth out both the choreography of a long take and the delivery of the dialogue by the actor opposite him. All of these circumstances, not written into the script, add to why Shoot the Piano Player still works today.
Truffaut cast the introspective Charles Aznavour (perfect as Truffaut’s screen alter ego and performing with the right of amount of earnest demeanor and personality) and tender but saucy first-timer Marie Dubois as the leads, both of whom have plenty of screen presence and romantic chemistry between them. The other cast members, such as lovely and forlorn Nicole Berger in the flashback sequence, also give fine performances and add subtext to Aznavour’s bummed-out state of mind when the film starts. The two thugs Ernest and Momo are antecedents of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction—possessed of a refreshing duality, they are yappy but deadly buffoons with observantly funny insights on life. Another deft Truffaut touch is the casting of actual club performers rather than traditional actors in the subordinate roles (the bar owner really had a night club act, the youngest brother Fido was a cut-up on the set who made the film crew laugh, and the two musicians were really in Aznavour’s trio), which gives the film a memorable quirkiness.
What makes Shoot the Piano Player particularly charming is how Truffaut infuses Goodis’ scenario with a playful whimsy, which is conveyed through stylistic choices in camerawork, sound design, editing, and very funny interludes that contain humorous singing, dialogue, and situations. Tarantino has lifted quite a few of Truffaut’s tropes from Shoot the Piano Player (such as digressions in the narrative to develop supporting characters through absurd but observantly funny dialogue or action), but gone on to put his own personal stamp on it. Unlike imitators of Casablanca who have rendered that film a parody of itself through being so endlessly copied and referenced, Tarantino, like Truffaut, understands that a director should imbue the film with his personality to distinguish it from its references. Shoot the Piano Player epitomizes the auteur theory that Truffaut proposed in his critical writing; his fingerprints are all over the film. Coutard has gone on record in a 2003 Criterion DVD bonus material interview, stating that he shot the film “entirely on François’ script” rather than how he visualized it himself, so Coutard was in the total service to Truffaut’s vision. Had Truffaut not directed Shoot the Piano Player, it would not have the standing it has today in the canon of memorable French New Wave films from the early 1960s.
Chris Anthony Diaz is the creator of the blog CAD Pictures. He takes photographs, makes short films and writes about movies too.