Go ahead and shoot the cellist, too. Appellate Judge Dan Mancini doesn't care.
"I can't be in two places at once."—Charles Koller/Edouard Saroyan
François Truffaut's second feature—long available in the form of an inferior Fox Lorber release—finally makes its way to DVD in style, courtesy of the folks at The Criterion Collection.
Using David Goodis's Philadelphia-based crime novel Down There as inspiration, Shoot the Piano Player focuses on its hero's haunted past without short-shrifting the book's seedy underbelly of crime. In this way, Truffaut's adaptation is one part homage to American noir, one part French New Wave classic.
Facts of the Case
After four years of separation, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy, The 400 Blows) arrives at a club where his brother Edouard (Charles Aznavour, Ararat), a former concert hall pianist, plays under the name Charlie Koller. Chico is being pursued by two hat-wearing, pipe-smoking thugs with whom he pulled a job, and then gypped out of the loot. Soon enough, Charlie is caught up in his brother's problems.
His obsession with career having driven away his wife, Térésa (Nicole Berger, All the Boys Are Called Patrick, a Jean-Luc Godard short film included on Criterion's release of A Woman is a Woman), Charlie lives in a modest apartment with his kid brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan, The 400 Blows). He carries on a casual affair with Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), a prostitute who lives next door and helps care for Fido. Meanwhile, he begins a deeper relationship with a barmaid, Léna (Marie Dubois, Jules and Jim). Just as it looks as though Charlie and Léna's love may enable Charlie to exorcise the ghosts of his past, the story erupts into mayhem, kidnapping, murder, and heartbreak.
Shoot the Piano Player opens abruptly with Chico Saroyan fleeing a car on foot. The soles of his shoes scuff the wet asphalt of black-and-white back alleys, headlights closing in behind him. For a brief moment, it's as though we're in a world envisioned by Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street), but then Chico tumbles and the film changes. He is rescued by a man carrying a dozen roses, and the duo, like old friends, have an extended conversation about women, romance, marriage, and family. Then the stranger turns into his apartment building, and Chico is off to the races once again. Playfully self-conscious, the sequence is disconcerting for the viewer, but perfectly exemplifies the genre-twisting games Truffaut will play throughout the course of his movie.
As a whole, Shoot the Piano Player mirrors the A-B-A structure of its opening sequence: It kicks off with gangster-noir intrigue, segues into a lengthy middle section devoted to Charlie's shyness and troubled love life (including an extended flashback of his tragically failed marriage), only to return to the crime plot in order to wrap things up. It is to the director's credit, though, that the patchwork structure of the film proper feels far more organic than its whipsaw opening. While Truffaut merely pays homage to Hollywood crime films as opposed to making an actual crime film, it's not merely an intellectual exercise. The director lacks his compatriot Jean-Luc Godard's focused intellectualism and devotion to anti-narrative conceits. As a result, the crime elements of Shoot the Piano Player actually pay off as a crime story. Moreover, the relationship elements that make the film so much more than a genre piece are meticulously woven into the genre elements: Charlie's relationship with his brother is the catalyst for the plot intrigue, and the intrigue forces Charlie to examine his own past.
Part of the reason Shoot the Piano Player doesn't feel like a piecemeal movie is that the landscape of Charlie's emotional and romantic life is presented in an aggressively nonlinear and narratively elliptical manner. As in his feature debut, The 400 Blows, Truffaut allows us to observe his characters' behavior before providing us the background information that illuminates it. Charlie's biography comes to us in dribs and drabs, mostly out of chronological order. We only see the full measure of the man near the end of the picture. All of this plays with a great deal of subtlety. One never feels as though Truffaut is playing a self-conscious or self-congratulatory game. Instead, his reticent and structurally-complex style is narratively compelling. It hooks us, making his careful study of human behavior oddly suspenseful.
In a way, Shoot the Piano Player is structured like an onion. Its outer layer is the crime story. Inside we have Charlie's budding relationship with Léna. But the Charlie/Léna story is itself a frame for the story of Edouard's marriage to Térésa and his past success as a concert pianist. Only when Truffaut finally allows us to flashback to the tragic events of Edouard's marriage can we begin to make sense of Charlie's behavior in both the crime tale, and in his romance with Léna. In a sense we delver further and further into Charlie's psyche as the movie progresses, until we finally arrive at his true self: Edouard.
Criterion's presentation of Shoot the Piano Player on DVD is top-notch. The film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is maintained, of course, and it's offered in anamorphic widescreen. The fine-grain master that was used as the source for the transfer appears to have been in solid shape to begin with because Criterion's digital restoration—supervised by director of photography Raoul Coutard—is mostly gorgeous. There's almost nothing left in the way of damage or dirt. The black-and-white image is stable with beautiful contrast and sharp detail. Blacks are deep, whites sparkling, and there's an impressive spectrum of grays in between. Occasional density problems that produce minor flicker and blacks that aren't fully saturated in isolated scenes are the only major flaws noticeable. They're a result of the age and condition of the source materials. The bottom line is that Shoot the Piano Player has never looked better in a home video format.
The restoration of the original French audio track is also excellent. Given a single-channel presentation that locates the track in the center speaker of surround systems, it is clean, free of distracting pops and hiss, and has a natural ambience.
Criterion's release of Shoot the Piano Player is a Special Edition whose two discs and 28-page insert booklet are loaded with excellent supplementary material. Here's what you'll find:
On Disc One, the feature is augmented with a commentary by film studies professors Peter Brunette, who edited a book on Shoot the Piano Player, and Annette Insdorf (François Truffaut). The commentary is separately indexed into 23 chapters for easy access to the topics discussed. Both scholars know their stuff. They talk about the film's narrative structure, its place in both Truffaut's oeuvre and cinema history, and the film techniques and cinematic language employed by the director. Not only is the track informative, but since the duo were recorded together, it has an engaging, conversational style.
The first disc also houses a French theatrical trailer.
The supplements on the second disc are comprised primarily of interviews with Truffaut and various of his Shoot the Piano Player collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera.
First up is a pair of interviews with Truffaut himself. They are excerpted from two French television programs, Cinéastes de Notre Temps (1965), and Pour Changer étoiles et Toiles (1982). The segments excerpt only those portions of the shows in which Truffaut talks specifically about Shoot the Piano Player. The 1965 piece runs approximately nine-and-a-half minutes, and the 1982 piece runs approximately 12 minutes. The earlier interview is the more fascinating of the two because of how dismissive Truffaut is of the gangster elements of his film. He also talks about the influence of Camus, Cocteau, and American cinema on Shoot the Piano Player. In the 1982 interview, he mostly discusses the process of adapting David Goodis's novel.
Next is a 2005 interview with Charles Aznavour, conducted specifically for this DVD release. The actor is charming, giving most of his 24-minute talk in French after explaining in English that his English is "only for hotels, restaurants, and backstage." The content is standard for actor interviews: Aznavour talks about Truffaut's personality, style of working, and the demands of playing Charlie/Edouard.
Marie Dubois also provides and actor's perspective in another 2005 interview, shot exclusively for this release. In her 10-minute talk, she relates the tale of how she met Truffaut and was cast in Shoot the Piano Player, as well as providing other behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the picture's production.
A 2003 interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard is also archived on Disc Two. Shoot the Piano Player was his first film with Truffaut. During his 14-minute talk, he talks about how he was hired for the project, and the shooting philosophy he and Truffaut developed for the film—a combination of Hollywood convention and the handheld style of the Nouvelle Vague.
The final interview on the disc is with Truffaut's longtime assistant and collaborator, Suzanne Schiffman, conducted in 1986 as part of Rainer Gansera's documentary, Working with Truffaut. Most of the interview was not used in the documentary, so this DVD is the first time much of it has been available. During the 15-and-a-half-minute piece, Schiffman talks about how she met Truffaut when he was still the delinquent upon whom he based The 400 Blows' Antoine Doinel, the beginning of the Nouvelle Vague, and her long working relationship with the director.
In The Music of Georges Delerue, music historian Jeff Smith discusses the composer's music. His spoken essay is set to music and scenes from the film. He focuses primarily on the challenges the composer faced in writing the score for Shoot the Piano Player, and how he rose to those challenges. Smith closely analyses a number of the score's themes, and talks about how the score influenced Delerue's style for the remainder of his storied career. Shoot the Piano Player's score, by the way, was Truffaut's favorite of all of his movies. The Music of Georges Delerue is approximately 17 minutes long.
The final extra on Disc Two is Marie Dubois's screen test, which runs just under three minutes.
The insert booklet that accompanies the discs contains an essay by film critic Kent Jones, and a lengthy interview of Truffaut conducted by Hélène Laroche Davise, which originally appeared in Shoot the Piano Player, the collection of essays edited by Peter Brunette
In Shoot the Piano Player, François Truffaut adds layers of narrative complexity to the revolutionary cinematic style of his first feature, The 400 Blows. The result is a movie that is as entertaining as it is important.
Kudos to Criterion for giving it the beautiful presentation and wealth of intelligent supplements it deserves.
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• Commentary by Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf
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