' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Watching (and greatly enjoying ) “Frances Ha” made me yearn to return to Francis Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player”, a film I only first visited several years ago. Partly my re-visitation was on account of “Frances Ha’s” decided French New Wave roots, though mostly it was the notion of the Frances of the title suffering a crisis of identity.

“Shoot the Piano Player” at first glance appears to have its own identity crisis. Its jump cuts, which make the jump cuts of “Frances Ha” appear elegantly understated, are frequent and fierce. The film is a drama and then it is a comedy and then it is a romance and then it is a tragedy. This makes it sound like going for a ride on a cinematic pogo stick, an unwieldy collage of random bits, but it slowly comes into focus as it progresses. For all its bouncing around, it knows what it is, which is to say that it knows who its protagonist is – even if its protagonist is not at first what he seems.

The protagonist is Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), the piano player of the title. He plays at a dingy little Parisian bar. He is quiet and timid, so quiet and timid that he fails to realize Lena (Marie Dubois), the heaven sent waitress at the dingy bar, is making eyes at him until the crusty owner (Serge Davri) tells him. He is so quiet and timid that he spends much of the movie in the midst of internal conversations illustrated through wry voiceover. Should he put his hand on Lena’s back? Should he not put his hand on Lena’s back? What will she think if he does? What will she think if he doesn’t? I confess I found this so identifiable I nearly broke out in flop sweat.

Charlie Kohler, however, is not Charlie Kohler at all. He is Edward Saroyan. We learn this because Charlie’s (Edward’s) brother Chico (Albert Rémy), pursued by the requisite gangsters for the requisite debt owed, turns up at the dingy bar in search of a little familial aid. Being the blowhard that he is, within minutes he has blathered his brother's true identity to anyone within earshot. In Edward’s former life he was a classical pianist of exceptional repute. Alas, his better half, Theresa (Nicole Berger), confesses that she sorta makes like Costanze to Salieri in order to get Edward that classical pianist gig. Needless to say, this does not end well.

That it does not and still plays so fast and loose, a jaunty ragtime not played to win prizes but just to make people jitterbug, is a testament to Truffaut's accomplishment. There is a throwaway moment fairly late in the film when one of the gangsters on Chico’s trails tells a fib about the maker of his gun. The person to whom he’s fibbing does not believe him. He swears on his mother’s life he’s telling the truth. Cut to: what we presume to be the gangster’s mother, old, perhaps a little haggard, dropping dead. Those quick-cut flashbacks that Seth MacFarlane and Mitchell Hurwitz and Tina Fey employ(ed) to such extravagant effect on, respectively, “Family Guy” and “Arrested Development” and “30 Rock”? Well, there it is. And while the device is inherently meant to be random, I can hardly recall any other example where it felt as wondrously random as this one.

More than anything, though, "Shoot the Piano Player" deals in dual identities. Charlie is Edward until he is Charlie again. His wife is faithful until she is unfaithful. His employer is a friend until he is a foe. And even though the film ends in a cloud sadness, so too does it underscore its own dualistic nature by simultaneously ending with a whiff of hope.

Is it strange to suggest someone re-retreating into the haven of a false persona could be read as hopeful? Perhaps, but Edward Saroyan isn't what or who he is - he's what and who he turns into.


Dan said...

I saw Shoot the Piano Player back in film class in college (it might have even been high school), and I've forgotten a lot of it. I still think about that cut to the guy's mom dying, though. Such a fun and brilliant way to surprise the audience. I rarely hear about this movie, so it's always cool to see it covered.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, this one doesn't seem to get mentioned quite as often as, say, "Breathless." But speaking only for myself, I kinda like this one a little more.