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The Criterion Collection presents
"What you did yesterday stays with you today."
DVD Review(Reviewer's note: what follows is a modestly amended version of my look at Fox Lorber's previous release of this same title. I admit to being more taken this time by Charlie's interior monologue, and the ways in which he's oblivious to the world, when he's not deliberately trying to keep it at a safe distance. Structurally, too, the movie seems tighter than I first appreciated—it's a move from the past to the present, from the city to the country, the kind of transition we associate more often with comedies—Bringing Up Baby would be the paradigmatic example. It's an oddly fatalistic story, at once about the possibility of redemption and the inexorability of fate. Watch it, at least twice.)
Oh, 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.) Franćois 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. 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: A vast improvement on the previous release, Criterion's transfer shimmers, though the occasional jumpy frame fuels the suspicion that irreparable damage has been done to the source material, and that we won't ever see Raoul Coutard's photography glisten as brightly as it probably did nearly half a century ago.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The sound is modestly improved as well; though the capacity of the mono track remains limited, even if your French is as rusty as mine.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peter Brunette and Annette Insdorf
Packaging: Amaray Double
On the second, you'll find a raft of information on the creative team behind the film. First are two interviews with Truffaut—the first (09m:33s) is from 1965, the second (12m:15s) from 1982, and both linger over the director's relationship with Goodis's novel. A 2005 interview (23m:59s) with Charles Aznavour finds the leading man in fine fettle—he starts in English, then switches to French, to express himself with more nuance. He's charming, though this can be a bit aesthetically unpleasing, as his orange shirt clashes badly with the crimson couch on which he sits. Also from 2005 is a conversation (10m:03s) with Marie Dubois, who recalls meeting and working with Truffaut; and a wonderful 2003 interview (13m:42s) with Coutard, who discusses Truffaut going to school on Godard and his working methods while making Breathless.
Frequent Truffaut collaborator Suzanne Schiffman is up next, in outtakes (15m:27s) from a 1986 documentary on the director—she conjures up the happy memories of old times. The Music of Georges Delerue (17m:19s) is an audio essay on the film's composer by Jeff Smith—it provides a biographical overview, a look at his work on this film, and a necessarily very brief survey of some of the other 200 films (!) for which Delerue wrote the score. Perhaps most charming of all is Marie Dubois' screen test (02m:51s), in which she is encouraged to curse a blue streak, then blushes in embarrassment. The accompanying booklet includes an essay on the film by Kent Jones, an interview with the director, and his more extensive reflections on his leading actors. Also, a special shout out to Criterion for including postcards in each new release for other titles in their collection—collect 'em all!
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsAn insinuating story that plumbs the psychological depths, Truffaut's second feature offers up many of its rewards only slowly—and Criterion's comprehensive new release of the title is as good a reason as any to savor its many pleasures. It's a great film, one that's sure to stay with you. Very highly recommended.
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