Francois Truffaut’s 1959 debut The 400 Blows is one of my favorite foreign language films of all time. Off the top of my head, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is the only film I’d rate higher. So I’m shocked it took me this long to visit his sophomore effort, Shoot the Piano Player. The film has always been well-liked but disappointed commercially and I’m not sure what kind of legacy it has outside of the snobbiest corners of film twitter. Regardless, the film carries the same kind of bittersweet melancholy Truffaut does best. Not to mention the film was a pivotal entry into the French New Wave movement of the ‘60s.
Shoot the Piano Player is Truffaut’s tribute to American Cinema. The story was adapted from American writer David Goodis’s novel Down There and tells the story of a disillusioned piano player who becomes tangled up with love and gangsters in Philadelphia. Truffaut moved the setting to Paris but otherwise followed the beats of the novel. Truffaut even planned to shoot the film on studio-built sets to emulate the glossy noir films coming out of Hollywood. Though do to budget concerns, the film was instead shot on location using available light. This decision combined with the film’s choppy editing is what earned the film’s place as part of the French New Wave. If you’re not familiar, the French New Wave was a filmmaking movement that utilized stylish editing, simple yet personal narratives, and existential themes.
To make up for the low budget, Truffaut shot the film in DyaliScope, known in the US as Cinemascope. So picture a very wide frame. The idea was to make the film look more grand despite its quaint settings and relatively unknown cast. The film far outshines its meager cost, which was under a million dollars, and gains strength from its intimate character interactions.
Charles Aznavour—who was more famous as a singer than an actor—plays Charlie Koller, a soft-spoken piano player at a hole-in-the-wall bar called Plyne’s. Charlie sleeps around and plays night after night with little enthusiasm. Only later in the film through a flashback do we learn that Charlie used to be a concert pianist under another name. Charlie played grand concert halls until his wife revealed she slept with a powerful agent to boost Charlie’s career. He stopped talking to her soon after and she then killed herself.
In modern-day, Charlie makes a meaningful connection with a waitress named Lena (Marie Dubois) but this is complicated by Charlie’s brothers after they steal money from gangsters. The gangsters track down Charlie in hopes that he will lead them to the brothers and all hell breaks loose. This is the “noir” segment of the film though it’s far more low-key and grounded than anything you’d see in a Bogart picture.
The gangster stuff is entertaining but the heart of the film is Charlie’s budding relationship with Lena. In particular, a memorable walking scene where Charlie keeps trying to make the first move but can’t break out of his shell. Few filmmakers know how to capture both the feeling of love and the feeling of being an outsider like Truffaut.
Shoot the Piano Player isn’t as ambitious as you would hope for the follow up to The 400 Blows. But it’s just as well crafted and acted. Also, like The 400 Blows it has an an earworm of a theme. It gets me excited to dig deeper into Truffaut’s filmography for the next Criterion Month. Who knows maybe I could watch some of his films even sooner? How does “Truf-Febuary sound?” Yeah, it sounds bad.