Shoot the Piano Player (1960, François Truffaut)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

If I could make movies, François Truffaut’s breathtaking Shoot the Piano Player is close to what I would want to do. It’s the best movie I’ve seen in months and months and months, a million wonderful ideas jam-packed into 84 majestic minutes, over far too soon. To be upfront, I don’t even know where to begin talking about it, but if you have a chance, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Get ready, as with Repulsion, to be at the mercy of a master who is unleashed like the proverbial kid in the candy store, or like the proverbial Orson Welles in the RKO studio.

Its tone borrowed from two parts Double Indemnity and one part City Lights, Shoot the Piano Player riffs articulately with the many steadfast cliches of American B-pictures, and turns every one of them upside down, injecting real life into the movies, and vice versa, to create juxtapositions that are fascinating, scary, hilarious, and distressing. The story is of a retired concert pianist hiding out under a fake name playing for a living at a seedy bar, having given up his profession because of responsibility he felt for his wife’s death. (Shades of Chinatown! — which extend to the ending.) His brother races into the bar one night chased by gangsters, who target the pianist and all those who know him after he aids the escape, dragging him kicking and screaming into the criminal life favored by his siblings, while to complicate matters a beautiful woman genuinely in love is urging him to return to his former persona, and finds herself almost willfully dragged along with him.

Truffaut is always liberal with offbeat techniques of jump-cuts and windowboxing, but his use of them in this film is particularly delicious and often stunning (including quite possibly the first-ever “cutaway” joke in the vein later favored by The Simpsons). It is through both his unorthodox techniques and his smart telling of the story itself that he offers a reversal of every presumption, an exposure of every possibility in a film for which the simplest way out is never good enough. The movie is turned inside out, and it will turn you inside out.

The director talked about the first two films in a given filmmaker’s canon being the two that reveal the most about him as a person. He said that the second movie is always a reaction to the first movie (once reason it’s so unfortunate that Hitchcock’s second film is lost). In his own case, it’s an inescapable truth: Shoot the Piano Player has essentially nothing in common with The 400 Blows except that it’s filmed in black & white and it’s a nearly perfect piece of craftsmanship and creative genius. It does share with the prior film a love of the most earnest souls among us, but here laced with a brooding, delightful cynicism that offers comedy and tragedy. Shoot is anything but a naturalistic project, overflowing with slapstick humor, surrealism, and sly audience communication.

The movie achives untold levels of beauty in its characterization of the love interest, played with aching precision by Marie Dubois. Miles away from the silly fantasy girl of current American films, she is the lover we all want to be and the lover we all want, the intelligent and independent and strong-willed person who is determined to make you live your life to the fullest and to whom you would sacrifice damn near anything. Even, in the film, your own notion of what living life to its fullest really means. Everything about her relationship with the protagonist — its development, his misgivings and fears, and her open joy at revealing the truth and offering the purest of mercy — feels present and honest. I wonder if she represents someone from the director’s life, but of course, that’s none of my business, is it?

As the chases and fire and music wear on, the film continues turning expectations around, but as entertaining as it is, it could never go out with anything but a bang, so be prepared. The conclusion, I may as well tell you, is as heartbreaking and poignant as the rest of the movie is breathless, fun, visceral, gorgeous, and exciting. Its final message and final shot — which echoes unmistakably The 400 Blows but with a touch of forecasted Chinatown resignation rather than the indescribable “what now?” pregnancy of Blows and The Graduate — have the painful ring of relentless, disappointing truth.

Defying all sense of genre in even the most minute sense, like the great works of Hitchcock, Shoot the Piano Player is a film that has everything, the first I’ve seen in a long while. It offers love as sacrifice, hatred as theft, potential as empty, life itself — and fate — as a cruel beast beyond what we want to consider, but also a big open grave (Jean Renoir’s volcano) for us to dance on. It laughs at itself, at death, and at life… It is life.

[Originally written and posted in 2006.]

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