Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) is a pianist in a low-rent Parisian bar. He has attracted the attention of waitress Lena (Marie Dubois) but she doesn't know his past, or indeed his real name. But then Charlie's brother Chico (Albert Rémy) turns up, on the run from gangsters...
After the worldwide impact of his first feature, The Four Hundred Blows (Les quatre cents coups), François Truffaut wanted to make something entirely different for his sophomore effort. If The Four Hundred Blows was autobiographical in inspiration and, to his mind, specifically French, Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste, known in the USA as Shoot the Piano Player) drew heavily on his love of American film, specifically the film noir he had grown up watching, less than a couple of decades before this film was made. He had read David Goodis's novel Down There in the 1950s, and had asked producer Pierre Braunberger to acquire the rights. However, the film, written by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (who had co-written Four Hundred Blows) digresses from the novel in significant ways. Moussy left the project and Truffaut completed the script himself.
If Shoot the Pianist is of film noir, it's of the French New Wave as well. It's clearly the work of a young man (Truffaut was just twenty-eight when it was made) who is in love with cinema and its possibilities. This was the first Truffaut film shot by Raoul Coutard, who had previously shot another key New Wave film, Godard's A bout de souffle. Truffaut and Coutard made use of newly-available lightweight cameras and took his film out of the studio and into the streets, making a virtue out of circumstance. For example, the opening scene was shot at night in the rain, which caused several of the lights to blow, which is why for a large part of it, the actors' faces are in semi-darkness. Truffaut also paid tribute to early cinema in his use of iris shots, to screen comedy by having his protagonist adopt the name Charlie (as in Chaplin) and by calling one of his brothers Chico (as in Marx). He also plays a few meta-cinematic gags, such as following one of the heavies swear on his mother's life that he is telling the truth with a quick shot of that mother falling down dead. Since many of the innovations of the New Wave quickly passed into the cinematic mainstream – you can see its footprints in many British and American films later in the decade – it's hard to see how fresh and exciting this all seemed, but its exuberance is clear. Later, Truffaut became a more classical filmmaker, and always had a much warmer sensibility than his New Wave cohorts. It's there in Shoot the Pianist in the scenes with Charlie/Edouard's youngest brother Fido (Richard Kanayan), without the sentimentality that sometimes creeps in later when Truffaut includes children in his films.
The protagonist of Down There was a standard tough guy. Truffaut made Charlie a more vulnerable, more passive character, casting the not exactly physically imposing (5'3”) Charles Aznavour in the lead. There's emphasis on Charlie's shyness, especially with women, and the three women in his life are all more complex than straightforward femme fatale types. Aznavour did his own piano playing.
Shoot the Pianist is one of twelve Truffaut films that Artificial Eye are reissuing on Blu-ray and DVD. It will also form part of the six-disc boxset François Truffaut Collection Volume 2, which will be released on 1 December 2014. A DVD checkdisc was received for review and comments below and affiliate links above refer to that edition. Affiliate links for the Blu-ray can be found here. The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. The film was cut by the BBFC to receive a X certificate in 1960 (not confirmed, but I suspect that one shot showing Michèle Mercier in bed topless was scissored). It now carries a 12 certificate, fully uncut.
Shoot the Pianist was shot in Dyaliscope, a French anamorphic process, and in black and white. The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.35:1 and widescreen-enhanced. The film was originally released in 2002 in France by MK2, and a comparison shows the difference a HD master makes. Blacks, whites and greys are fine, the all-important contrast seems accurate and the grain (which there is quite a bit of in some scenes, given the circumstances of filming and the low budget) is filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, and it is clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are optional and seem accurate. I did spot one spelling error: “yoke” for “yolk” (of an egg), fifty minutes in.
The extras on this disc are some of those from the 2002 MK2 release, though that disc has English subtitles (which do spell “yolk” correctly) for the feature only. The main extras were produced in 2000. Firstly, Serge Toubiana narrates a short introduction to the film (3:27), detailing how Truffaut felt trapped by the success of his first feature and wanted to make something different, and was guided by his own pleasure more than anything else. He also discusses the casting of Aznavour, with whom Truffaut had wanted to work with since seeing him in Georges Franju's La tête contre les murs in 1959.
The next item is a commentary with Raoul Coutard, though it's really an interview with Toubiana as the uncredited interviewer. Given that this is a cinematographer commentary, there are lots of technical details, which may or may not be of interest to audience, but if you are interested in this side of filmmaking there's a lot to be going on with. Coutard talks about the use of lighting in certain scenes, of his use of lightweight cameras, of black and white and Scope. His last collaboration with Truffaut was 1968's The Bride Wore Black, for which he confesses he was difficult to work with due to giving up smoking at the time. He also discusses Godard, with whom he was a frequent collaborator, and who was at the time a strong friend and influence on Truffaut.
Also on the disc are Marie Dubois's screen tests (2:51), first “muet” and then “sonore”, the first with Aznavour standing in the background. In the sound test, Truffaut tries to get her to sound “obscene”. Finally, there is the theatrical trailer (1:48), presented in 4:3. (On the MK2 disc, but not carried over to this edition are a second commentary, with Toubiana interviewing Marie Dubois, plus interviews with Truffaut from 1965 talking about certain scenes in the film and about David Goodis, respectively. However, none of these have English subtitles available.)