After transcribing his childhood into one of the finest character studies in all of cinema, Francois Truffaut took a cue from his sometimes friend, often enemy for his second feature. He went Godard, in other words, and like his relationship with that most temperamental of filmmakers, Shoot the Piano Player is cinema with both hot flashes and cold skin. In 1960, before the French New Wave was nothing more than a passing whisper in the international film crowd, Shoot the Piano Player managed to prelude and predict all the proclivities, both passing and permanent, of the trend. Fittingly, and without surprise, it is as buoyantly vivaciousness and infected with cinematic self-love as even Godard’s Band of Outsiders and yet as chilly and formally provocative as Godard’s Breathless (in a rare feat of simultaneous humility and egomania from Godard, that film’s name tells all).
And Shoot is a noir, no less, the most New Wave-y of genres, but one coming from the famously genre-averse Truffaut. Trading in his quasi-neo-realist heart for a fit of feverish play, Truffaut used Shoot as both a chance to stretch out and a means to test himself, to both mimic the style of a friend and to, perhaps, decide if that style could know a home in his own mind as well. Obviously, Truffaut’s future career tells us that he found more comfort in the less formally quizzical character studies he made his name on, but, if Shoot was a mere vacation, it would prove one of the most exploratory and cinema-charged vacations in all of the medium. The French New Wave arguably never gifted a superior present to its favorite American genre, the film noir.
What did the French New Wave love about the film noir? Its crushingly beautiful formalism, obviously, but the New Wavers were not mere formalists for the sake of formalism, for which they are often mistaken. The French peered deep into the dark heart of American life and saw a volcanic break from realism in its cinema, a pseudopod form of the fantastique found in early German cinema. The extra-realism had been muted by the whims of changing times, but the noir still found cinema that was willing to pursue its darker internal worries and more secretive whims, as the German silent horrors had. The New Wave saw, in American B-pictures, a bold rejection of the Type-A majesty of the Hollywood blockbuster and a grimy gutter-crawl into the dankest regions of the human imagination. It saw cinema commenting indirectly and idiomatically on human needs, desires, cravings, and fears. It saw cinema as an unconscious dream of a collective people, a visual and aural tapestry of persistence of the mind and rejection of the limits of the corporeal body.
Obviously, a childlike Truffaut – whose adolescent adversities were memorably paid requiem to in The 400 Blows – found beauty and harmony in cinema as his internal escape from the external world, and this sort of violently personal cinema would always appeal to him. In Shoot the Piano Player, he similarly fixates on a lost soul transferring his dejection into his art – piano playing – and whose art turns him into the criminal he probably thought he was all along. Played by actual musical sensation Charles Aznavour, the main character of Shoot is as plaintive and he is mischievous, and he could not be a more snug fit for the feature film that wishes to point its itchy trigger finger at him so callously and without hesitance.
Yet Shoot is not a dejected motion picture so much as an intentionally disjointed, contradictory one, a film equally prone to fits of melancholy as it is prey to frivolity. The title, blunt in only the cheekiest, most farcical of ways, does not lie, nor does the tarot card reading pop-art of the famous poster. For all it weeps for the inner core of art and artistry, Shoot is a vivacious motion picture of sharply, almost violently joyous filmmaking, with fascinatingly manic tangents into snowbound shootouts, sideways glances into human windows that play out like mini-movies, and enough spunk on its hands to stop mid-film for a veritable sing-along number. It is an ambidextrous motion picture, with near-incandescent momentary wish fulfillment undercut by the crippling understanding that it is all for naught.
Which is to say, Shoot is a formalist masterpiece where formalism is undercut by the knowledge that all its formalism is a ruse, a means to rejoice in the vicious fun of genre-fried cinema to escape from the reality that will always come back to you, no matter what. Charles escaped his family’s criminal life, but life has a way of drawing you back, and the same can be said of humanity’s relationship to cinema. In the end, of course, Truffaut was not only a dreamer but an observer, and that life does come clawing back. To the bone. Shoot is cinema as escape, cinema as self-critique of the false positivity of escape, and cinema as humble human acceptance that even if escape is only an escape, sometimes – and this is arguably the divining principle of all great cinematic entertainment – escape is all we have left. It is, let’s say, an effigy to the idea of cinematic escape – to the idea of “going to the movies” to hide from your problems, just as Charles hides his troubles within the jangled nerve clinks and clanks of the piano strings he tries to call friends. Escape, it eulogizes, may even bring us closer to reality after all.