Shoot The Piano Player begins thrillingly with a car chase. The man being pursued flees down a street corner, his assailants disappear into the night, and he subsequently bounces off a streetlight like an idiot. The man who brings him back up on his feet proceeds to regale him with stories about how he met his wife before walking off, never to be seen again.
In fact, none of these characters are our main protagonists but it perfectly encapsulates the glories of Francois Truffaut’s stroke of genius in this early emblematic film of the New Wave. It’s a petty crime story with a comical streak. The two tough guys aren’t tough guys at all but with their hats and pipes they look like a pair of Monsieur Hulot doppelgangers or something. That is until they pull out a gun. But even then, they’re hardly thugs.
Listed out as simple plot summary, it has certain flourishes fit for a Hitchcock thriller. A man on the run. Lurking criminals, kidnapping, murder, romance, humor, but there’s no doubt, even with this being only his second feature, that this is very much Truffaut.
It’s all a wonderful front for Truffaut’s own explorations. And the bottom line is not simply homage to film-noir and the Master of Suspense but more broadly all his fascinations of men, women, love, and everything that intrigues him about putting a mirror up to humanity–cinema itself. However, as the director long suggested, he preferred film to reality because he could orchestrate it, make it to his liking, with touches of humor and tragedy.
This pseudo-storyline starts with Charlie who placidly knocks out honky tonk for the public’s enjoyment. It’s hard to know if he’s content or simply biding his time. The latter seems more likely. Except when his big brother Chico busts into the joint with a couple of hoods on his tail, in some small way it brings everything rushing back on Charlie.
It’s not much but the ensuing events have him wrapped up in his own bit of intrigue as he navigates his romantic inclinations and every other thing that is thrown his way. A Hollywood reference point would certainly be Out of the Past and similarly sinks back into a flashback. But here it is used in a way that’s completely jarring, hardly convenient for those seeking comprehension. And Truffaut’s character utilizes voiceover as well but this is not the laconic, cynical speak of film-noir, instead the nervous inner monologue of a timid piano player.
His sometime bedmate and the housekeeper for his kid brother is Clarisse. Meanwhile, the waitress at his work Lena has his heart going pitter patter, not quite a Hitchcock blonde but a woman who is willing to get involved with his drama. But there was also another important woman in Charlie’s life: His wife.
It’s from these three women in their relationships with Charlie and all the other male characters that some very blatant realities become evident. There’s a conscious separation of the woman into parts whether it is her heart or her body. In one sense, the aforementioned women are strong characters. Meanwhile, the men are all fairly passive, their main outlets include objectifying, ogling, even ridiculing their female counterparts.
At least Charlie’s candid about it but he’s still part of the problem. In many ways, in looking at the women as the tragic figures often used by men as a cinematic object, Truffaut could very easily be wrestling with his own issues of love and romance. What does that actually mean? What causes people to marry? What causes them to love and fall out of love, break up and come back together or even commit themselves to death?
All that can be found within this film although it is obviously veiled by scenes masquerading as crime and comedy. The crowning joke of them all is really a kind of tragedy. Amid the strangest turn of events, Charlie or Edouard (as we now know he is called) is resigned to play behind his piano once more.
The final moments at the snowcapped cabin are madcap and still almost surreal with some stunning sequences captured vividly by iconic New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard. In breaking so cleanly with his initial effort of The 400 Blows, Truffaut simultaneously positioned himself as a very special filmmaker. He’s beholden to drama, comedy, crime, and romance, but most of all, he’s beholden to the magic of the silver screen.