Often overlooked, Truffaut’s wonderful second film—sandwiched between art-house evergreens The Four Hundred Blows and Jules and Jim—stars Charles Aznavour, master of the chanson, in his only collaboration with the director. The slight singer-songwriter, playing Charlie, an ivory-tickler at a dive who abandoned his career as a famous concert pianist after a family tragedy, may not be as indelibly associated with Truffaut as Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel, but he’s just as heartbreaking.
Truffaut said that Shoot the Piano Player was made in reaction to The Four Hundred Blows, which he deemed “so French,” adding that he “needed to show that I had been influenced by American cinema.” An adaptation of David Goodis’s 1956 novel, Down There, this film more than nods to noir: Charlie is on the lam because he killed in self-defense; his kid brother, Fido (curly-haired wild child Richard Kanayan), has been kidnapped by two nitwits cheated out of a deal by Charlie and Fido’s thug siblings; Charlie’s new steady, Léna (Dubois), is a devoted dame. The homage, of course, is invigorated by the New Waver’s own flourishes, like Boby Lapointe’s bouncy performance of “Framboise” at Charlie’s bar.
And then there’s that tiny piano man. Though it seems almost cruel that Aznavour never sings in the film, he most poignantly conveys profound sadness—stemming from a crazy family, betrayal, loss and squashed hope—during those moments when he never opens his mouth.