It's no secret that François Truffaut worshipped at Alfred Hitchcock's very large altar. In no movie is that more apparent than the French auteur's 1960 film (his second), Shoot the Piano Player, which takes its narrative and visual cues from a variety of Hitch's early romantic thrillers — most notably The 39 Steps — but filters them through the influences of Jean-Luc Godard. Which is to say that the approach is decidedly new wave, with tangential pacing, slam editing, handheld camera work and stylish ruminations on romance shoehorned into a traditional gangster noir.
Though an adaptation of David Goodis' great pulp-thriller novel, Down There, Truffaut hardly takes his straight-faced source material seriously, opting instead for narrative asides, flippant genre-hopping and a kid-in-jeopardy melodrama.
Charlie (Charles Aznavour) is a once-famous pianist who suffered a Greek tragedy of marital infidelity and retreated from the world. Now a honky-tonk piano player in a run-down Paris bar, he falls in love with a comely waitress but is paralyzed by his reticence. Worse, his ne'er-do-well brother embroils him in a gangland feud that results in the kidnapping of his youngest sibling.
Bouncing somewhere between homage and satire, Shoot the Piano Player is a cinephile's dream, trading in thick atmosphere, classic Hollywood sentimentality and self-conscious affectation — all in a decidedly French fashion. Truffaut gracefully employs his new wave sensibilities to yo-yo between moody crime noir, ironic digressions and wistful domesticity. It's an impressive high-wire act, subverting and honoring the genre in equal measure. Even Charlie's noir-tinged voiceovers are mutated, becoming the kind of neurotic romantic musings that Woody Allen would make famous 15 years later in Annie Hall. Truffaut's film is clearly revolutionary for its time, delivering a crime drama that is strangely light-hearted yet filled with loneliness, despair and an unabashed love of music. Georges Delerue's hauntingly jaunty score manages to bridge the gap between these disparate elements, becoming the sad but quirky soundtrack Charlie pounds out on the keyboard at the movie's start and finish.
All the actors are terrific but Aznavour is truly a star, embodying wounded timidity and cautious savvy with quiet aplomb. You can't take your eyes off him. He's a wholly believable character in a cast that seems to have stepped from Hollywood's central casting — you know, where everyone has a mug and the villains are identifiable by their hats and pipes.
There are signs that this is early Truffaut, however, that he's only just finding his feet as a filmmaker. The dialogue's is heavy on exposition; there are a few too many silly visual gags and some of the scenes are so dark that they could only be considered noir by default, leaving viewers to wonder whether the lighting crew took a few days off during shooting.
Still, the French director's ability to weave together so many stylistic and artistic gestures is impressive and an extended death slide down a snow bank at the film's end is as good as anything Hitchcock ever shot. If you're a film fan who's looking for the perfect introduction to Truffaut's work, Shoot the Piano Player is an entertaining and illustrative primer. Plus Parisian club singer Boby Lapointe's ribald and vulgar tribute to female anatomy, "La Framboise," is worth the price alone.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 20-21, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 22. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].