Friday, June 04, 2004

Video: Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Where you see a movie shouldn’t dictate your response to it. The big screen at Radio City Music Hall won’t make VAN HELSING play any better, and watching CITIZEN KANE on a black-and-white TV in an Omaha motel might diminish its power but not erase it.

But sometimes you have to make exceptions. I first saw Francois Truffaut’s film projected on the wall of a back room in Boston University’s AV library. The wall wasn’t clean. The projector was noisy. So was the air vent directly over my head. I assumed the circumstances of the screening were the reason why the film didn’t leave much of an impression.

In the intervening eighteen years, I’ve seen more Truffaut. I’ve also read some David Goodis, including DOWN THERE, the 1956 novel on which PIANO PLAYER is based. Goodis is among the most disquieting of hardboiled writers because of the sense of blessed relief that courses through his books. His characters don’t simply rush toward their cruel fates, they almost embrace them, if only to be secure in the knowledge that they cannot sink any lower. (I review the new DVD of the 1947 adaptation of Goodis’ DARK PASSAGE, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, in the next issue of Mystery*File. Look for it here soon.)

A case can be made for the marriage of the nouvelle vague and noir beyond the fact that the budding filmmakers haunting the Cinémathèque Française loved the genre. Both forms are about stylization. The New Wave reveled in the sheer movieness of movies, while noir dwelled on the darker end of the emotional spectrum. Jean-Pierre Melville, long regarded as an ancestor of the New Wave, certainly knew how to blend the forms into a galvanizing whole. But every Francois Truffaut movie touches on his eternal romance with the cinema. The only thing Goodis’ characters were in love with was death.

It’s a scrupulously faithful adaptation. Charlie (Charles Aznavour) bangs out dance music in a seedy club. One night his brother scoots in, trying to avoid two crooks he’s double-crossed. Charlie helps him escape, which attracts the attention of waitress Lena. She knows Charlie’s history; he’s actually Edward Saroyan, who abandoned his criminal family to become a concert pianist only to have his career end tragically. She’s convinced she can restore him to his former glory. Charlie’s nowhere near as sure, but he’s willing to give it a shot. Aznavour is not really an actor, which actually enhances his performance. His blankness befits a man who has willed himself to forget who he was – twice. (Aznavour also plays a character named Edward Saroyan in Atom Egoyan’s ARARAT, which I haven’t seen.)

Truffaut tries hard, but the beguiling buoyancy that infects his movies works against the story. Every scene crackles with a joie de vivre that seems contrary to what has happened and is happening to Charlie. There’s engaging filmmaking throughout that results in a failed film.

My first reaction to the movie eighteen years ago was a Gallic shrug. I’d feel the same way even if I hadn’t read the source material. But now that I have, the movie seems like a disappointing gloss on an underrated writer. It’s true in form but not in spirit to David Goodis. Which may be just as well. I’m not sure if I could stomach the real thing on a movie screen, no matter what the size.

Miscellaneous: Links

Marc Jacobs breaks “the shopping karma” by putting a political display in his store window. And Stephen Merchant, co-creator of THE OFFICE, offers an appreciation of the Marx Brothers.