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Shoot the Piano Player (1960)


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In Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Francois Truffaut repackaged the Hollywood gangster B picture by not straying too far from genre conventions. Truffaut was a film critic at the legendary French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, along with Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard.  Gritty and not overly stylized, Shoot the Piano Player can be seen as a companion piece to Godard’s Breathless (1960).  Both were photographed by Raoul Coutard.  And both pictures share an absurdist, black comedy sensibility.


The protagonist in Truffaut’s film is Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), who makes a living playing the piano in a Parisian café a small step above an American dive bar, although not without its charms.  Charlie is introduced as rather content with his modest lifestyle, which changes dramatically when his estranged gangster brother, Chico (Albert Remy), appears, asking Charlie’s help in eluding two buffoonish crooks Chico stiffed in a robbery.  Charlie reluctantly agrees, but in doing so makes himself a target.


Not very handsome, and with an expression part poker face and part worry wart, Charlie is still quite the ladies man.  He lives next door to Clarisse (Michele Mercier), a kind and beautiful prostitute he sleeps with. Clarisse also watches over Charlie’s little brother, Fido, whom Charlie wants to keep out of trouble, and not drift toward crime like his older brothers.


Hints are given that Charlie is too talented to be working in a dive bar. Truffaut shows why in a clever flashback, in which Charlie Kohler becomes Edouard Saroyan, his former life as a famous concert hall pianist.  Edouard is married to Therese (Nicole Berger). He lives in a fashionable apartment.  He’s also unbearable, as fame has gone to his head.  Asked by an admirer about Ernest Hemingway, Edouard/Charlie talks himself up instead.  Therese views the marriage as a prison sentence. Her suicide closes the chapter on Edouard Saroyan, celebrated pianist, and fast-forwards the film to the present.


Charlie’s fate is inseparable from his gangster family.  He finally finds love with Lena (Marie Dubois), a coworker, only to have this overdue happiness come to a bloody end at the family farm, where Charlie is hiding from the police, after killing, in self-defense, the thuggish bar owner. Truffaut films the shootout at the farm in wide-angle, giving the montage an unreality, with the characters so far from the frame it looks like something we observe as if we’re driving past it, before it recedes from sight, not sure exactly what we’ve just witnessed.


Charlie Kohler is not the existential anti-hero Jean-Paul Belmondo was in Breathless. Fussy and self-absorbed, Charlie tries mightily to impose order over his world, which Truffaut regards as commendable but futile.   Charlie plays the piano in a bar.  It is here we first meet him, and it is here the film says goodbye to him.   

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