Truffaut had a gift for spotting interesting literature in pulp fiction—that too from distant lands—and turning them into remarkable works of cinema. Shoot the Piano Player was based on an American pulp novel called “Down There” by David Goodis. (Others include Cornell Woolrich’s novels that were the basis of the Truffaut films Mississippi Mermaid and The Bride wore Black and another of Ray Bradbury that metamorphosed into the Truffaut film Fahrenheit 451). This gift of spotting gems from pulp fiction actually helped the struggling authors. After the success of the film Shoot the Piano Player, the noir fiction writer’s book “Down There” was republished as Shoot the Piano Player, a rare example of how cinema affects literature in a positive way.
Truffaut grew up relishing Hollywood noir films of the Forties and Fifties—films in black and white, populated with cigarette smoking heroes having dark personal histories, with a penchant for wry humor often winning their personal wars at the end of the film. Truffaut transposed the ingredients of American noir film into a French setting in Shoot the Piano Player. The dour-faced Charles Aznavour replaced the typical cigarette smoking, tough-talking Humphrey Bogart of the Hollywood with goons (“heavies”), brawls, deaths, investigating cops and lonely good-looking women thrown in good measure to spice-up the viewer’s appetite.
What did Truffaut find attractive in Goodis’ work? The wonderful line from Goodis’ novel “What you did yesterday stays with you today” essentially captures the essence of many Truffaut films (right up to his later films such as The Woman Next Door). Truffaut was probably attracted to the theme of loyalty that pervades the Goodis story: loyalty to one’s family (the four odd brothers sticking together), loyalty to wife/husband in true love, and loyalty to the café even when owners and colleagues change. There is nothing American or French about it—it is universal. My guess is that Truffaut found the sudden rise and downfall of an individual at the peak of success that the Greeks called “hubris” appealing. Goodis provided Truffaut with three types of women: one that would go to any extent to prove her love for her husband (Therese), one that would seek out the ideal mate for her with a resolute purpose (Lena), and finally one seeks a mate that provides friendship, physical and moral (Clarisse).
After spotting the interesting story, Truffaut the director paints the story with humor and pathos. When a goon says a blatant lie and swears on his mother’s life that it is true—the quaint Truffaut, with typical French humor, shows his mother collapsing and dying, even though the woman has no role to speak of in the story. When a bad café owner, Plynie, is discussed in conversation, three separate telescopic images of the character are shown simultaneously. Finally Plynie correctly surmises that the piano playing hero Charlie is “scared”, the hero is initially stumped, reflects on the charge and then admits “I am scared.”
The film’s contribution from Truffaut and cameraman Raoul Coutard cannot be downplayed. The camera zooming in on Charlie’s attempts to hold the hands of Lena provides humor and a moving intimacy for a viewer with a character that few directors have achieved. Finally, the closing shot of the pianist playing the instrument staring blankly at the camera, underlines the signature of Truffaut analyzing characters in his film dispassionately (He repeats this again as the closing shot of his later film The Story of Adele H). Truffaut and Coutard achieve a rare technique, inviting the viewer to analyze characters during the film’s run time. The silent gaze of Charlie partly hidden sitting behind a small piano at the camera captures the essence of the entire film, "What you did yesterday stays with you today.” The tortoise hides in his shell. Here the shell is the piano. Even a talented and good person is caged by external circumstances, basically because he is scared of facing a larger reality.
What Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard achieved beyond the technique of their film making was their ability to invite the viewer to look at anxieties and fears of the lead characters. Truffaut unlike Chabrol and Godard would inject comedy, when the viewer least expects it. For instance, as Charlie completes an internalized monologue that the viewer hears on the soundtrack about his brother, Charlie suddenly speaks two words "Bon chance!" (Good luck) while he continues to play the piano. This was probably the reason why Truffaut was more popular among the three afore-mentioned directors.
Many consider the film to be near flawless cinema, but here’s a film where a windshield of a car splashed by milk becomes sparkling clean a few moments later defying logic! Many critics consider Shoot the Piano Player to be basically Truffaut’s work but it is truly a product of a great team—Truffaut, Goodis, Coutard and Aznavour, each contributing to the film’s appeal. However, for me, The Story of Adele H. is superior cinema and arguably Truffaut's most powerful work.