Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

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The French New Wave is quite an odd period of filmmaking – for once, filmmakers could depart the silly mainstream and actually use this newly-found genre to make minimilistic passion projects and express their love of nihilism (can one love nihilism though). To me, two films represent the apex of the French New Wave – Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. I will start by reviewing the latter…

Charles Aznavour is absolutely mesmerizing as Eduoard/Charlie, a man being torn apart by his own pitiful existence – he plays piano in a run-down bar but believes he should be playing grand opera houses. The film basically says spousal suicide, a criminal family and thugs – there are only a certain amount of problems one can face before having a nervous breakdown. We as the audience feel like Charlie could kill himself or become stronger – he could go either way.

The film is very tightly written and alternates between tragicomedy and melodrama – a combination of Howard Hawks noirs and screwball comedies if there ever was one. The production values were clearly small, but this film has a big heart that is sadly absent from many American films.

This is definitely one of the defining films of the essential French New Wave, and a wonderful film.

And now a guest review from Andre:

Filmed with no shooting script (all scenes were written on the day, under the one criterion that Truffaut would be pleased with all of them), Shoot the Piano Player is an odd duck, even amongst the incredibly diverse and idiosyncratic Nouvelle Vague movement. Abandoning the autobiography of The Four Hundred Blows, Shoot the Piano Player takes the opposite tack and creates a heady fantasia culled from other movies.

Sound familiar? It should, because a certain modern director (let’s call him “QT”) has practically made it the bedrock of his style ( I would not be remiss in saying that one scene in this film is so similar to the Butch/Fabian sequence in Pulp Fiction that it seems beyond a reasonable doubt that Tarantino has seen-and absorbed-this film).

In fact, this could probably be the most perfect example of Tarantino’s maxim of letting reality intrude on all this Playtime (and I wrote it like that deliberately). This extends not only in the films mundane (but very funny) conversations intrude on the more melodramatic thriller elements, but in the world created by this low-budget, on-the-fly style (all location).

And yet…
It’s so dreamy. Henri Decae’s monochrome ‘Scope cinematography, as much as it captures the reality of the streets of Paris, also transforms it into a playground. This is apparent not only from the way the twin locations of the bar where Azvanour plays his piano and banters (the fist Hawks/QT connection), and his apartment, but even in their intrinsic quality (the shabby cabin in the snow a the films violent siege climax-why, hello Howard Hawks!), which, though clearly real (there’s no Kwaidan stuff here), are still the stuff of movie dreams.

Fantasy also intrudes in the structure of the film, with Truffaut pulling out his box of tricks, from odd angles, flashbacks, a musical sequence (“Raspberries and anarchy are the breasts of life” indeed), long, irrelevant but witty dialogue (hey, I’ve seen that somewhere else…) and, of course, action.

What stops this from being just a box of tricks is Truffaut’s commitment to allowing emotional reality to intrude, even via his expressionist devices). Which is exactly what the Nouvelle Vague was about: transforming memories (from movies, real life, real movies…) into vivid, free expressions.

Shoot the Piano Player still stays fresh, unusual, unique even, along with other modernist masterworks of 1960 (Psycho, The Housemaid) and extremely frank. It is proof that playfulness, genre and reality are all unavoidable-and wonderful-pieces of our movies. And all in under 80 minutes, like any good B-Movie.

NB: Despite having no script, the film bears some resemblances to a novel entitled Down There, by David Goodis, who was the source author of another noir touchstone, Detour. Appropriate, no?

NBB: I could be mistaken, but the opening hip bar scene, bracketed by chaos, could be a riff on Cocteau’s Orpheus, while there’s a love scene that I’m pretty sure was indebted to L’Atalante

 

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