Charlie is approached by his crook brother Chico, who is chased by two gangsters. Charlie helps him to escape, but he upsets the criminals, so when his brother Fido is kidnapped, Charlie has to take an attitude with tragic consequences.
Charlie Kohler is a piano player in a bar. The waitress Lena is in love with him. One of Charlie's brother, Chico, a crook, takes refuge in the bar because he is chased by two gangsters, Momo and Ernest. We will discover that Charlie's real name is Edouard Saroyan, once a virtuose who gives up after his wife's suicide. Charlie now has to deal wih Chico, Ernest, Momo, Fido (his youngest brother who lives with him), and Lena...Written by
François Truffaut's second feature, Tirez sur le pianiste, is a deliberately wild and chaotic satire of the American gangster pictures of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Truffaut tried to make Tirez sur le pianiste, or Shoot the Pianist, the complete opposite of his first picture, The 400 Blows, doing away with the sentimentality of the predecessor and making his second feature far more vicious, nonlinear and, occasionally, quite funny.
Based off of a pulp novel by David Goodis, the movie is about a once-famous piano player (Charles Aznavour) who gives up looking for the reason his wife left him, and now plays piano in a run-down Paris bar where he falls for a waitress, and must overcome his natural shyness in order to express his love for her. Unfortunately his brother gets him involved in a gangland feud, which gives the story an unnecessary (but welcomed) edge to the romance.
There are some highly amusing scenes, such as when Charles and his soon-to-be-girlfriend walk down a Paris sidewalk and he contemplates what to say, do, and how to act, without offending her or making a fool out of himself. We hear Charles' neurotic thoughts in voice-over an effect now overused in cinema but back in 1960, very new. It wasn't until the intrusion of Woody Allen comedies such as Annie Hall that sporadic first-person narratives became popular in the noir movies of the earlier decades voice-overs were sometimes used by narrators (such as in the cult classic Detour) but never in such a way as Shoot the Pianist's. It's one of the best scenes in the movie, and a great way of expressing the inner-workings of Charles, the character.
Shoot the Pianist's chaotic structure confused and overwhelmed many audiences when the film was released in 1960. Its content (violence, nudity, etc.) was not as welcomed by audiences as it is now, and as a result the film was a financial and critical failure. The humor was not appreciated, the insightful look at a French Everyman was not even noticed it was ruled out as a dud, and that's all that mattered to anyone.
Over the years it has picked up a rather small cult following and fans of Truffaut's films have declared it to be one of his best pictures. Looking back now in light of such recent gangster genre hybrids such as Reservoir Dogs and Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Truffaut's movie not only seems more understandable but far ahead of its time. In relation to Reservoir Dogs it contains the same sort of standard, everyday nonchalance in accordance with gangsters while it contains the narrative flow of Guy Ritchie's British gangster cult hit.
Regardless of how brilliant Shoot the Pianist seems forty years later, Truffaut was scarred by the negative press surrounding his second feature and never made another movie as daring (so to speak) or, more likely, downright fun as Tirez sur le pianiste. It's a very amusing movie, and it is one of the few 1960s films that doesn't seem dated compared to the film-making standards of modern-day Hollywood. The performances are flawless, the characters likable and realistic, the movie overall highly enjoyable and worth seeing more than just once. It is sadly one of Truffaut's most underrated movies, although hopefully in another forty years it will only be all the more appreciated for its qualities.
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