We meet Charlie the pianist through his ne’er do well brother, Chico who is on the run from a couple of thugs. Charlie plays the piano at a small night club, and his brother immediately teases that his real name is Edouard, not Charlie.
When Chico escapes, the men going after him turn their attention to Charlie. Meanwhile, Charlie, painfully shy, struggles to tell Lena that he has feelings for her. The men tail Charlie and Lena as they head home from the club that night, and the next day they pick them up. When Lena interferes with the driver, however, the cops pull them over, and Charlie and Lena use this as their opportunity to escape.
High on the adrenaline rush of escaping their would-be captors, Charlie and Lena sleep together after Lena confesses that she really likes Charlie. She also knows Charlie’s real identity, and in a series of flashbacks we learn why he ditched the name Edouard. As a younger man, Edouard fell in love with a waitress, immediately proposing to marry her upon meeting her where she worked. This is not the Charlie we’ve been introduced to thus far.
He and the woman, Theresa, marry as Edouard becomes a famous pianist, easily-recognizable on the street. Slowly his marriage begins to decay, and Theresa confesses to him that the only reason Edouard was offered a contract (leading to his widespread fame) was because Edouard’s manager propositioned her, trading the contract for a night with Theresa. She breaks down and says she doesn’t recognize herself in the mirror. Stunned, Edouard tells himself (in voice over) to go comfort her because she can’t be alone. Instead he turns and leaves. A moment later he rethinks his decision and comes back inside only to see that Theresa leapt out the window, to her death.
So now we know why Charlie is so painfully shy. His entire world was shattered, and the only comfort he had was playing the piano at a small joint.
Ecstatic that they’re together, Lena has grandiose ideas for their relationship. She encourages Charlie to go back to being Edouard, and, in essence, to quit being scared. She wants him to be the man he could be and once was.
They go back to the club (where she works as a waitress in addition to him being the pianist) to tell the boss, Plyne, that they quit. Plyne admitted to Charlie earlier that he was in love with Lena, though he knew she had her eyes on him. Having found out that they slept together, Plyne tries to kill Charlie, but Charlie stabs him (reluctantly) in the back in self-defense, killing Plyne.
Soon after, the two thugs kidnap Charlie’s kid brother, Fido. In order to evade the police, Lena drives Charlie out to the farmhouse where Charlie’s brothers Chico and, another, Richard hide out.
The two thugs arrive with Fido, and a shootout ensues in which Lena is shot and killed while Chico and Richard escape. Charlie and Fido hover over Lena’s lifeless body.
Next thing we see is Charlie returning to the night club to continue working as the pianist, and he’s introduced to the new waitress.
So it’s a sad story, tragic both in terms of Charlie’s origins as well as his ultimate fate. He loses two love interests due to things somewhat in his control, and he’s most likely going to toil away at the night club, as shy as ever and with a guilty conscience.
As a whole, the film Francois Truffaut’s second, is much more plotted than The 400 Blows. At the same time, the story revolves around the inner workings of one man, Charlie, and his desire to break free of those restraints, similar to Antoine Doinel.
Like The 400 Blows and other French New Wave films, Shoot the Piano Player was filmed on location and in public areas to give it a sense of reality.
It’s funny, because I don’t feel like I have much to say about this film. I know some about the French New Wave movement, but I’ve forgotten a lot about it. What I do know is that these films heavily influenced later filmmakers, particularly Woody Allen who I’ve been covering extensively. And yet, this all feels so familiar.
It’s like this: I took a music in film class in college, and we studied the music of Psycho (Bernard Herrmann). Specifically and obviously, we looked at the famous shower scene in which the music, mostly in not all strings, cuts like a knife. It’s very effective, and when the professor asked the class what they thought of it, one student raised her hand and said it felt like a cliche because so many horror movies have done the same thing. True, but the Psycho score invented that cliche.
That’s how I feel about this film and probably a bunch of other New Wave films. There’s nothing here that I haven’t seen before, and I’m trying to give myself enough context to understand how revolutionary it was at the time.
Psycho actually came out the same year as Shoot the Piano Player, so maybe lets start there and compare the two films. It’s not a perfect comparison because they’re both great films and for different reasons. But Psycho was filmed completely (I think) on sets.
Take, for example, a driving scene from each film. First, here’s Shoot the Piano Player.
It’s a simple shot, really. Charlie sits in the backseat, and the camera is in the front. They also cut back and forth to show the front of the car and Lena, who sits where the camera is in the above shot. So they can never show the entire car in one shot, particularly because they film inside the car. You can see the outside world passing by through the windows and while that’s possible to create in a studio, it is real here.
Now here’s Marion Crane driving in Psycho:
The camera doesn’t move because it’s mounted outside the car, and Marion is framed perfectly in center frame, her features lit precisely and dramatically. The studio allows for more creative control, but it’s also very clear that she’s not really driving.
In French New Wave films, the directors give up a certain amount of control by filming in less certain environments (aka the real world) but it makes the film feel more authentic, like these could be actual characters instead of character types.
Plenty of films are shot on sets, though today it’s usually a combination of on location and onset. Here’s an example from Breaking Bad.
This is Walt getting out of his car. I’m 97% sure it was filmed on a set, mainly because of the strong white light that highlights the back of his head. Then, a few seconds later Walt returns to the car, and it looks like this:
This is filmed on location, and, though his head placement is a little different, there’s no white light outlining his head like in the previous shot.
Then again, I might be completely wrong, but the point still stands that films/television shows shoot both on location and onset.
So I again got off track, I guess. I’m just revealing how little I have to say about Shoot the Piano Player beyond it feels more like modern movies than films made before it.
One last thing is that I love the sound effects in French films of this time period. Everything was redubbed after filming, so sometimes the voices feel too pronounced, and the sounds of footsteps sound more like ping pong balls than actual feet. French director Jacques Tati actually did use ping pong balls for the sounds of a character walking down a long hallway. He took the sound effects to another level, creating a new kind of reality for his films which were much more broadly comedic. Here’s an example from his film Mon Oncle (1958):
Every sound, like the lighter, is heightened, possibly as a way to fill in the silence when a character isn’t speaking. There’s no music, no dialogue, just sounds.
So Shoot the Piano Player was part of a movement as well as Truffaut’s version (stylistically and thematically) of an action film, like the ones made in Hollywood. He added depth (albeit tragedy) to his characters and realism to a genre that’s usually the furthest thing from reality.