François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) is one of those celebrated films that I had somehow just never seen till this weekend. Oh, I’d seen clips and knew a little about it—and I’d suspected that the phony gangster-movie opening of Ken Russell’s 1966 TV film on composer Georges Delerue, Don’t Shoot the Composer, was based on the Truffaut film (which it was), but I’d just never seen it. The experience was a sheer delight of the “Why hadn’t I seen this before?” variety. I loved everything about the film, but I can’t help but think that the blurb on the DVD case errs in calling it Truffaut’s “most playful film” without elaborating on that. It’s true, but more in terms of cinematically playful than in a literal sense. (It’s occasionally the latter, too—for example, take the cutaway when one of the gangsters says that if what he’s saying isn’t true, may his mother keel over.) The film is a kind of a film-noir homage, but it’s rarely very serious about it and refuses to stay in a given genre. It’s a preposterous noir with a kind of art-film backstory in the middle of it. It’s a comedy and a romance—and it always pretends to take itself seriously in each capacity.
The story is built around Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), the piano player in a bar that otherwise has nothing much going for it. He’s largely shut off from everyone and in his own little world—at least until his shiftless brother arrives bringing trouble in the form of a pair of not very menacing gangsters whom he has cheated in a robbery (though the gangsters’ ineptitude ultimately makes them dangerous). Charlie can’t help but become involved, because the gangsters insist on involving him—and by extension, the waitress, Lena (Marie Dubois), who is attracted to him. What follows is a deliciously wild ride—and one of those rare movies that you’re sorry to see end.