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Fox Lorber presents
"Of course I'm not a real great artist, but people must believe in me so I may become one. Is that too much to ask?"
DVD ReviewOh, the perils of the sophomore jinx. After your first film is an extraordinary popular and critical success, like, say, The 400 Blows, what can you possibly do for an encore? (I know, I know—we should all have such terrible problems.) François Truffaut took a fascinating turn the second time out of the gate, turning to an American pulp novel, Down There by David Goodis, and making it his own. He transposed the story from New York to Paris and retitled the resulting effort Shoot the Piano Player. (I'd recommend the Goodis novel, too, even just on its own terms, and it's in the Library of America's posh collection of 1950s crime novels.)
It's a peculiar, ambling movie, not quite a film noir though it's rich in atmospherics; too violent to be a light comedy, though there are plenty of good laughs; yet not menacing and dangerous enough to be a gangster picture, either. Charles Aznavour stars as Charlie Kohler, the piano player of the title; he's employed at a seedy nightclub, banging out adequate music so that the patrons will dance and then order more drinks. Lena (Marie Dubois), the waitress at the bar, holds a candle for him, but there's more pressing business, as his brother Chico (Albert Rémy), on the lam from some bad guys, seeks refuge in Charlie's bar.
It's a film that's richer in the details than in its cumulative power, and storylines start and stop abruptly, almost arbitrarily. You may be taken with this, and generally I was, though it seems like a misstep to have the extended voice-overs providing Charlie's interior monologue, his commenting on the events happening elsewhere in the frame. And it's even slightly confusing that another actor provides the voice of Charlie's internal thoughts. (It's a device that Scorsese borrowed for Mean Streets.) An extended flashback fills us in on how a man of Charlie's talents ended up playing in the house band in some dive, and why he's so skittish about the world in general, and women in particular. (There are lots of story points given away even just on the copy on the back of the DVD case, but they're secrets you'll have more fun learning from Truffaut than from me.) Charlie looks after his little brother Fido (Richard Kanayan), and yes, someone comments that it's more of a dog's name than a boy's; and when Charlie isn't around, Fido is tended to by Clarisse, the cheery hooker who lives next door, and seems happy to give it away for free when the piano man comes home.
Much of the movie seems casually tossed off, and just when you think Truffaut is getting hopelessly earnest, he provides a slapstick gag designed both to get a big laugh and to puncture all the grand existential rumblings. It's more of a rumination on the human condition than a well-constructed movie, though Truffaut does pull it together at the end for a beautifully shot climactic shootout in the countryside. (I'd wager that the folks at The Sopranos had this in mind for their terrific Pine Barrens episode, in the show’s third season.) Aznavour has a great screen face, and we can see all his character's emotions flash past; it's also nice that the fact that he's shorter than just about every other adult in the cast is made readily apparent, without putting his leading lady in a ditch so that the star could manfully tower over her.
Jonathan Demme put Shoot the Piano Player on his all-time ten best list for Sight and Sound magazine, and you can certainly see an affinity between this movie and early Demme pictures like Something Wild—that ambling quality, that knowing wink at the audience which says, Yeah, the story may not be as tidy as some, but aren't these people interesting? Don't you want to spend some time with them? It's almost as if you can feel Truffaut finding his way as he goes, and while the destination may not be clear and the journey may not be the most direct one, it's a pretty canny little ride nonetheless.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Resolution is weak in the transfer, which means that articles of clothing with intricate patterns shine. Some of the images are so muddy as to be indecipherable, early on especially, and a good amount of scratches show up on the print. Some of the black & white photography retains its luster, but this is not an especially fine transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is adequate and workmanlike, and relatively free of interference.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 6 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English
Cast and Crew Filmographies
8 Other Trailer(s) featuring The 400 Blows (Les Quatre cents coups), Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim), Two English Girls (Les Deux anglaises et le continent), The Last Metro (Le denier métro), The Woman Next Door (La Femme d'à côté), Confidentially Yours (Vivement dimanche!), The Soft Skin (La Peau douce), Bed & Board (Domicile conjugal) , Love on the Run (L'Amour en fuite)
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsDon't shoot. Life can be messy, and movies can be, too, but Truffaut's command as a director is evident, and he nearly bleeds with his characters here—this is a thoughtful, entertaining shaggy dog of a movie, and while you may not end up one of its fierce partisans, you're likely to find plenty to think and care about.
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