Written and directed by: François Truffaut
If I had not taken on the project of watching the films of Truffaut and Godard side by side, I might not have found things to say about Shoot the Piano Player. A critic at the time of its release said it would only please “true lovers of movies, ” and as someone not even watching Truffaut’s homage to American noir and comedy films in its proper historical context I am more removed from it than lay-viewers of the 60s. Nonetheless, there’s an interesting trait in both Shoot the Piano Player and The Little Soldier (Godard’s sophmore release from the same year) that is a bit more universal in nature.
The implication of the film’s title, an implication better spelled out by Elton John’s album title Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, is that the piano player is an innocent figure. All the pianist does is make music, and life happens around them. Moral philosophers can debate whether such a figure is truly innocent (how can one be passive in a world of injustice, they ask), but such a debate is not what this film is about. Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) begins the film as such a pianist, but quickly becomes a slightly-modified version of the figure.
The film pulls a bit of a bait and switch, opening with an appearance by a character named Chico (Albert Rémy—the father from The 400 Blows) a comedic, likeable-criminal. Chico, it turns out, is not the film’s focus, his brother (Charlie) is. We are introduced to Charlie when Edward tells him he needs help evading a pair of mildly goofy, but ultimately still dangerous gangsters. While Charlie initially expresses his refusal to get enmeshed in Chico’s world, it soon becomes apparent he has little other option.
Charlie’s story then essentially follows a cynical path: one of finding and losing love, and one of trying to maintain a family that doesn’t exactly help itself. He exists on the cusp of having a fine-to-easy life as a pianist, but misfortune keeps him from finding such a life. He is a calm figure a rocky world. This is where Shoot the Pianist and The Little Soldier overlap. These protagonists are not mischief-makers like Antoine Doinel or reality-denying rebels like Michel Poicard but neutral figures, undone by the mischief and tragedy of others. Of course, in ways they are very different characters. For Charlie Kohler, neutrality is a very natural way to be, whereas Bruno Forestier is someone who has come to adopt a more neutral existence via philosophizing. This difference also highlights the unique ways in which the two films may fall short at pleasing audiences.
As I noted in my review, The Little Soldier, quite simply is a very philosophical film, its not everyone’s cup of tea. Shoot the Piano Player has no such problem. It is accessible, has funny moments and good lines and establishes a simple but effective backstory for its protagonist. It’s featuring a mild-mannered protagonist is an idea with great potential. When agreeable people are exposed to a cruel, unreasonable world, there agreeableness stands out, nicely highlighting the silliness, absurdity and/or cruelty of how others treat them. Shoot the Piano Player achieves this objective, but barely.
I would thus conclude that its weakness as a film is not reducable to any one of its traits: its more a matter of fine tuning. Perhaps Chico and the gangsters should have been given bigger roles to play up the film’s black-comic side. Perhaps Charlie’s back-story sequence should have been more extended to play him up as an innocent-but tragic figure. These too are criticisms I raise with caution. Shoot the piano player is an economical film, and that too I think is a trait worth praising. Is Shoot the Piano Player my favourite Truffaut film, no? Does it offer excellent source material for other stories to spring from? Absolutely