Over the course of 81 of the briskest minutes in cinema, François Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player contains flashbacks, jump-cuts, weird superimpositions, tender love scenes, broad slapstick, a snowbound shootout with feckless gangsters, a sing-along in a Parisian piano bar, and countless nods to American noirs and genre films. Truffaut himself claimed that his exhilarating second feature could be heard as a love story and viewed as a gangster noir, though it's a thrill to witness these aural and visual elements smashed together. The impulse to break down and reinvent cinema make Piano Player a quintessential French New Wave film, but unlike the work of his contemporary Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut isn't interested in deconstructing film so much as celebrating its possibilities. Though melancholy at its core, Piano Player has the spontaneity of a lark, at once more radical and more playful than any other film in Truffaut's career, and brimming with inspired touches that still seem surprising after a dozen viewings, much less one.
Adapting David Goodis' crime novel Down There, Truffaut puts an ironic twist on American genre types: Instead of a hard-charging noir hero, he casts diminutive singer Charles Aznavour as a self-effacing sucker who hides behind his piano; instead of stone-faced, murderous gangsters, he casts jokers with guns who are dangerous only in their bungling; and instead of a femme fatale, he provides a sweet, willful waitress (Marie Dubois) who sacrifices herself for Aznavour. Somewhere in there is a straightforward crime plot in which Aznavour is pulled from his reclusive hideaway by his no-good brother, who's gotten mixed up in the criminal underworld. But it's just enough to add a measure of focus to a movie that's terminally and infectiously distracted.
As film scholar Annette Insdorf notes on the audio commentary of the new two-disc DVD set, Shoot The Piano Player announces its intentions from the opening shot, which goes inside the piano as it grinds out Georges Delerue's signature score. From that point on, Truffaut goes inside the movie and makes the audience freshly conscious of all the keys being played. His anything-goes approach leads to surprises big and small, from the decision to subtitle a dirty Boby Lapointe ditty because his producer couldn't understand what the singer was saying to a flashback that takes up most of the film's second half. Yet for all Piano Player's self-consciousness, it never feels detached, which owes more than a little to Aznavour's hangdog persona, the perfect vessel for the whimsy and pathos flowing through the story. A movie-lover's movie, Shoot The Piano Player found a young director drunk on cinema and buying for the bar.