It was perhaps inevitable that François Truffaut’s attention would turn to the American cinema with his second feature, so steeped in the sensibilities of the European cinema was The 400 Blows. Shoot The Pianist owes to Ray and Hawks what The 400 Blows owes to Rossellini, and yet both offer up a mid-space that serves as dedication to either.
Telling the story of Charlie Kohler, the modest yet hugely talented pianist in a back street bar, and an encounter with his past, Truffaut takes that most typical of gangster tropes, one’s past catching up with them, and subverts it in to something that both resembles and reflects (its influences and its place). Following in the wake of the neo-realist leanings of The 400 Blows, and that films immediate predecessor, the short Les Mistons, one might be forgiven for finding Shoot The Pianist to be an altogether different beast, and yet they’re connected by the explicit and well-defined autobiographical streak that runs through Truffaut’s work.
At first glimpse the hyper-personal might seem somewhat absent from his sophomore feature, especially when compared to the acted-documentary-like nature of The 400 Blows, but it’s in it’s subtext where the real insight in to Truffaut comes with Shoot The Pianist. Left reeling from the suicide of his wife, Charlie Kohler turns his back on fame, instead choosing to escape his past and get by on an accompanist’s wage in a seedy saloon. Prior to his wife’s suicide the cripplingly shy Kohler has hinted at a desire to reject the limelight, with his unease at the situation explicit in his non-handling of it. One might read this rejection of fame as the young Truffaut coming to grips with his own fame, and the hype that followed in the wake of The 400 Blows, a great deal of which was coerced in to life by the young filmmaker himself! Such was the ambition with which the filmmaker announced his arrival upon the scene, the 1954 essay ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français‘, that a reaction (retraction?) of the sort being implied here isn’t that far fetched an idea.
Attaching the same notion to the character of Charlie himself, one cannot help but read the notion of a cultural rejection similar in a way to the domestic rejection of the American noir protagonist. Instead of responding to the horrors of war, or some such real-world fiasco, Charlie is reacting to a different kind of shellshock. As with the noir, Charlie’s tale is told in part as a redemption story of sorts, albeit one ultimately robbed of that all-important sense of closure, thanks to the death of Charlie’s saviour. As the films coda reminds the viewer though, salvation could be around any corner, no matter how hopeless any given situation may seem, as a new “Lena” comes in to the picture.
That such potentially po-faced subject matter is presented as freewheeling and carefree, and results in one of Truffaut’s most straight-down-the-middle enjoyable movies is no mean feat, but let’s not kid ourselves, the director was perhaps the master of taking the grim and spinning gold. The plight of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows becomes a tragedy worthy of the Greeks when placed in the kind of context that affords such an emotional response (such as Antoine de Baecque’s biography of the director; the character of Antoine Doinel is a close-analog of Truffaut, with pretty much every event that occurs in the film based on a real-life event), while one might find themselves faced with a similarly conflicted response were they to approach the complex subject matter of Jules et Jim in a literal manner.
But alas, the tragic heart of Shoot The Pianist makes it’s way to the silver screen via Truffaut’s greatest American influences; the gangster picture and the musical, resulting in a film that is ultra-reliant on being the sum of it’s parts. It isn’t long before the sense of the familiar subverted creeps in, as an opening car chase is made almost ridiculous, the pace interrupted after the central character bumps in to a lamppost. And it doesn’t stop there: a mundane and leisurely chat follows, as the protagonist is helped to his feet by a kindly stranger, with the danger that led to that immediate scenario seemingly forgotten. Several minutes pass before the chase picks up once again, before it’s once again broken up by the revelation that the person that the film has spent it’s opening ten minutes following around is but a mere associate of the real protagonist. It’s a fascinating approach to what would ordinarily be a very different kind of moving picture.