“Who is Charlie Koller? All we know is he’s the piano man who’s raising his kid brother and who minds his own business.” So says Léna (Marie Dubois), a waitress at the seedy bar where Charlie (Charles Aznavour) pounds away at the keys every night. As it happens, there’s much more to this reticent loner than the people around him realize; for starters, he’s not actually Charlie Koller…
At one time, not so long ago, Charlie was Édouard Saroyan, a piano prodigy who left his family (including his budding criminal brothers) at age fourteen in order to attend music school. He came to regard himself as an artist, and despite some early career struggles, he eventually became a well-known and respected concert pianist. Unfortunately, his rise to fame also led to the tragic death of his wife, Thérésa (Nicole Berger), after which he changed his name, disappeared from public view and even gave up music — at least temporarily. One day, while he was sweeping out the bar where he worked as a janitor, the lure of the piano proved too strong to resist. He asked for permission to try it out. “All right,” said Plyne (Serge Davri), his boss. “But it better be music.” It was music — Charlie may have done all he could to kill off Édouard, but he couldn’t kill off his talent — and since then, he’s been the bar’s resident piano player. Although he’s popular with the clientele there, it’s a definite step (or several) down from the life he once led.
Of course, this being a noir tale, Charlie can’t escape his past forever. It comes calling for him one night in the bruised, panting form of his brother Chico (Albert Rémy). Having double-crossed two men (Claude Mansard, Daniel Boulanger) with whom they committed a robbery, Chico and another Saroyan brother, Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), are in danger, and they want Charlie’s help. He doesn’t intend to get involved, but when youngest brother Fido (Richard Kanayan) is kidnapped and he becomes embroiled in a crime of his own, he no longer has a choice.
Director François Truffaut based his 1960 film Shoot the Piano Player on American writer David Goodis’s 1956 novel Down There. (A few of Goodis’s other works had already been adapted for the screen, including Dark Passage, the 1947 film version of which was directed by Delmer Daves and starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.) Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows (1959), had been a deeply personal story based on his own youth and, in his opinion, too typically French; for his second, he decided to take a different route.
“Surprised that I had made a French film, although I had always admired American films, I make [sic] ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ to pay my debt to American movies,” he told The New York Times in 1969. He chose Down There because the book had revealed to him “a poetic element in the noir genre that it might be possible to translate to the screen as long as I didn’t try to make it French.” While he did transfer the action from Goodis’s native Philadelphia to his own hometown of Paris, he tried to keep the setting as vague as possible. “There’s a sort of imaginary landscape, and I think the movie is faithful to the novel in that sense,” he said on the television program Pour changer étoiles et toiles in 1982. “There are differences, because I wanted to change certain things, but I think Goodis’s voice comes through in the film.”
However, once Truffaut started making his film, he encountered a major problem. “I’d chosen American material, and suddenly I was working with material I hated,” he said on a 1965 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps. “I realized that I detested gangsters. I got through it by using — not really parody, but a kind of humor.” He went on to explain, “Some people saw Shoot the Piano Player as a comedy, a parody of American cinema. But, of course, I hate parody. I say ‘of course’ because parody, to me, seems completely anti-artistic. I can’t believe any artist could like parody. It’s for impersonators, a different branch of show business. I saw the film as an homage in the form of a pastiche. After seeing fifteen hundred American films and enjoying their particular atmosphere, I thought I’d reuse those things from a French point of view to pay homage to them. I wanted it to be slightly ironic, but never mocking, and also to take itself seriously. This gives it a strange tone.”
Indeed, the film moves rapidly from comedy to tragedy, romance to crime drama, and back again, often within the same scene. These shifts had some precedent in Down There — “It both made me laugh and moved me,” Truffaut said — and they can be seen right from the start. After the credits, the movie opens with a frightened Chico fleeing his pursuers on foot, until he stumbles and runs into a lamppost — a scene essentially unchanged from the novel, save that the character in the novel (there called Turley) hits a telephone pole. Then comes an addition from Truffaut and co-screenwriter Marcel Moussy: A passerby helps Chico get up, and as they walk on together, the two proceed to have a quite un-noir-like conversation about the man’s happy marriage and family. At last, the man says goodbye and heads home; Chico immediately resumes running, and the atmosphere becomes tense once again.
As for the gangsters, Truffaut said, “I didn’t want to make heroes out of them or Lavender Hill Mob kind of inoffensive and funny gangsters, so I made my gangsters fantastic.” Momo and Ernest, the men pursuing Charlie’s brothers, are often amusing, even ridiculous, as when they ask the kidnapped Fido about school and show off their expensive clothing to him. At other times, they’re repulsive. During a failed attempt to abduct Charlie and Léna, they end up having a highly misogynistic conversation; per film scholar Peter Brunette in his commentary on the Criterion edition, “When Truffaut listened to this dialogue later on in post-production, he said he was so grossed out by it that he turned up the crowd, the street noises and the traffic noises to drown some of it out. Unfortunately, people then complained that they couldn’t hear anything, and so he had to take out the noises and face the music, as it were.” More importantly still, Momo and Ernest aren’t all talk. Chico, it turns out, has good reason to fear them.
Truffaut also incorporated elements of his own life and personality into the story. In François Truffaut at Work, Carole Le Berre notes, “It is difficult not to interpret the conjugal scenes that make up the flashback [to Charlie’s past] as a documentary on himself, on his anxieties as a film-maker and his way of dealing with the success of Les Quatre Cents Coups [The 400 Blows].” The flashback occurs in Down There, but not the argument between husband and wife seen in the film. Thérésa complains that Charlie (then Édouard) is obsessed with what people think of him. “I’d rather you were more smug, more sure of your talent,” she says. “At least I’d have some peace.” (According to Le Berre, Truffaut cut several lines of dialogue that seemed to allude to his own past as a film critic.) Charlie’s self-doubt is apparent throughout Shoot the Piano Player; during his life as a public figure, he bought books on overcoming shyness, and he constantly questions himself in interior monologues heard in voiceover. Like many another noir protagonist, he’s vulnerable in spite of his hardened exterior, though Aznavour’s small frame and sad eyes make Charlie’s vulnerability more apparent than they might be in a different actor.
Comedic, ironic and even playful though it can be, Shoot the Piano Player is very much a noir story at heart, full of characters trapped by their dead-end, sometimes violent environment and their pasts. Virtuoso or not, Charlie can’t escape from the things that haunt him, no matter how hard he tries to cut himself off from the world. As Thérésa tells him in the flashback sequence, “Lost in the night, you can’t stop the shadows from closing in. It gets darker and darker. There’s no way out.” A little later in the same scene, she adds, “What you did yesterday stays with you today.”
Brunette, Peter, and Annette Insdorf. Audio commentary. Shoot the Piano Player. Criterion, 2005.
De Gramont, Sanche. “Life Style of Homo Cinematicus.” New York Times 15 June 1969.
“François Truffaut ou l’esprit critique.” Cinéastes de notre temps. 2 December 1965.
Goodis, David. Shoot the Piano Player (Down There). Berkeley: Black Lizard, 1987.
Truffaut, François. Interview. Pour changer étoiles et toiles. 1982.
Le Berre, Carole. François Truffaut at Work. Trans. Bill Krohn. London: Phaidon, 2005.
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