François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) is perhaps the filmmaker’s most idiosyncratic film. On its surface, Shoot the Piano Player is a crime saga, but under Truffaut’s expert direction, the film subverts definition as a boilerplate noir or procedural. It has elements of slapstick humor, gangster-film hardness and romantic drama. At its core, this is a movie about emotions – the processing of, the dealing with, and the display of these sensations, imprints upon the film a melancholic heaviness. The emotional center of Shoot the Piano Player is Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour, whose furtive disposition is pitch-perfect here), a classically trained pianist shattered by his wife’s suicide, who has taken to playing for the regulars at a Parisian dive. As the story unfolds, so do the pieces of Charlie’s mysterious past, and it becomes clear he is not all he appears to be. His situation is further complicated when he enters into a romance with a waitress from the bar, Lena (Marie Dubois), and their affair dovetails with Charlie’s complicated history, leading to a fatalistic, noirish conclusion.
Truffaut loosely based Shoot the Piano Player on the noir writer David Goodis’s novel Down There. The film also acts as a love letter of sorts, for Truffaut had a deep admiration for American literary and cinematic traditions. While indebted to these sources, Shoot the Piano Player is a uniquely inventive work, an original piece of filmmaking that showcases not only Truffaut’s appreciation of movie history, but also his ability to infuse his stories with an emotional acuity grounded in humanism. Truffaut’s remarkable ability to produce compelling realism and his much-lauded fluency in the language of film are all found in Shoot the Piano Player, which stands as a high point of the vaunted Nouvelle Vague.