Tuesday, March 9, 2010

1960: Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut)

1960: Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut)

The thing I have always responded to most in the French New Wave films is their sense of playfulness.  Sure, the figureheads of perhaps cinema's greatest movement were the most knowledgeable cinephiles we've ever had.  They were also incredibly intellectual, well read and well versed in almost all things art.  But, in my favorite films by the group, it's watching their youthful exuberance as they experiment with a still very young medium that I find most inspiring. 

Truffaut once said, "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema.  I am not at all interested in anything in between."

Truffaut walks the walk, and Shoot the Piano Player expresses about as much joy in the medium as any film I've ever seen.  I also love its sense of romance, tragedy, and special lyrical quality.  It has one of my favorite scores of all time, and if I were ever teaching a class on voiceover, this is the first film I would use. 

I confess.  This is one of my five or so favorite films of all time.   

Other contenders for 1960: A good number of gaps this year.  These include: Satyajit Ray's Devi, Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, Ritwik Ghatak's The Cloud-Capped Star, Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Fritz Lang's The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Luis Bunuel's The Young One, Elia Kazan's Wild River, Michel Deville's Ce Soir Ou Jamais, Alexandre Astruc's La proie pour l'ombre, George Cukor's Let's Make Love, Budd Boetticher's Comanche Station, and John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (embarrassing but true).  I really need to re-watch Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers.  It's been too long since I saw it to know where it would place on this list.   And Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is one I need to continue to revisit as it's never had the impact on me of some other Hitchcock.  My closest runner-up this year is Jacques Becker's Le Trou.

3/14/11 I watched Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents.  An oddity, for sure, but with my favorite performance of Anthony Quinn.  Ray shows off his raw and lyrical tendencies, and there are a few fantastic moments, including the birthing of Quinn's son.

4/12/11 I watched Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques.  Makes me feel like Sautet's not a very good director.  Ventura's always fun to watch, and my favorite part was how close Delerue's music resembles his score to Shoot the Piano Player.  But otherwise, everything just felt a little hacked together.  

4/13/11 I watched Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. My first experience with the cinema of Naruse.  I like how he hits the streets in a way that we don't necessarily find with Ozu.  But this one lacked the depth of some of my favorite Ozu films, and the melodrama felt excessive and almost overbearing at times, in a way that Mizoguchi's work is able to avoid.  

4/13/11 I watched Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring.  There is much torment and anguish in Bergman's work.  And although I'm still new, for the most part, to his cinema, for this quality alone I can see why it has such a tremendous reputation.  His probing methods lead to producing unusual emotions, ones that seem fairly hidden and deep from most cinematic work.  But, ultimately, his harsh style and choice of subject matter most often result in leaving me pretty cold.  

1/1/13 I watched George Cukor's Let's Make Love.  Montand is always difficult for me, but Cukor keeps it lively, and there is vitality when very little else remains.

1/5/14 I watched Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  A young Albert Finney bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Ben Affleck though Affleck's talents may certainly not run as deep.  It is clear Reisz has seen Breathless, but this film is much closer than neorealism than the playfulness of the Nouvelle Vague.  I do not think I have ever seen a film that captures the grey, industrial England this well, and it is a committed character piece that is always believable even when not always that entertaining.  

9/21/14 I watched John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge.  Ford does Rashomon and seems determined to liberate himself from any claims of racism The Searchers might have created.  Given the typical poetic treatment by Ford, this one is compelling and is relatively lean Ford, even if ultimately its motives and similarities to other works take away from its power to affect.

12/30/15 I watched Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu.  Ray takes a few years away from his trilogy before coming back and completing it with this film, and the style feels a little different than the first two movies.  This film has a slightly more elliptical quality and seems intent on drifting closer to poetry.  The ending of the film is one of the very strongest moments of the entire trilogy with Ray attaining that transcendent experience of the great neorealist works.  

9/27/17 I watched Jerry Lewis' The Bellboy.  Lewis strikes me more than anything as an American Jacques Tati.  He has a great eye and, like Tati, is able to accomplish a great deal non-verbally.  He is not always quite as funny to me as Tati and I tire of him a little more easily than I do guys like Tati or even Keaton or Chaplin.

3/21/20 I watched Maurice Pialat's L'amour existe.  Pialat's early short film is already the work of a master even though the style is closer to Nouvelle Vague than the rigorous naturalism of Pialat's features.  It deserves to be seen by anyone interested in the New Wave, the short film form, Pialat or French cinema.  

4/15/20 I watched Robert Drew's Primary.  One of the first direct cinema documentaries, it is interesting to see Leacock, Maysles and Pennebaker all in the credits as collaborators.   I can tell the camera is more mobile than it might have been previously for documentaries but it still lacks some of the immediacy or poetic nature that Kiarostami, for instance, was able to bring to the medium in the next decade.

5/13/21 I watched Vincente Minnelli's Home from the Hill.  A film that really would not even be on my radar if it weren't for Richard Brody and his Twitter feed that I follow.  Aside from Some Came Running, I have been lukewarm about every other Minnelli film I have ever seen (probably ten or so others).  And I can completely see why this one might miss for many, from the heavy presence of its score to George Hamilton's acting to the Sirk-like histrionics.  If you can see past those elements, it makes a strong case for Minnelli's greatness.  Look at the grace at which the camera moves around the scenes, Minnelli's careful, emotive framing and the space and time he allows himself (150+ minutes) to explore the characters, the story, the setting.   

12/19/21 I watched Stanley Donen's The Grass Is Greener.  An interesting variation on the setup from His Girl Friday.  All four actors seem to be having fun and Donen pushes into some interesting thematic material as he puts the institution of marriage to question.

8/7/22 I watched Richard Brooks' Elmer Gantry.  As thorough an examination into religion in this country as any film I have ever seen.  Brooks' adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel lets us understand the undying appeal of religion and then questions all the ways it might deceive its followers.  Not always the most enjoyable filmmaking to listen to and watch.  But Brooks deserves to be commended for keeping this 150 minute epic on track and building it so that the third act is its most powerful.

3/21/23 I watched Elia Kazan's Wild River.  It does a pretty good job of capturing the underbelly of the south and what can be at times its nasty racism.   But it also all feels a little too amped up to make the emotions as effective as they could be.

8/21/23 I watched George Cukor's Heller in Pink Tights.  The colors and Loren, and even the landscape, are at times memorable even if the story sometimes seems to lack a charge or focus. 


  1. “Psycho” is number one for me, though Wilder’s “The Apartment” gives it a run for the money. I also would include “Breathless” as a strong contender. “Shoot the Piano Player” is one of my favorite Truffaut’s along with “The 400 Blows”, “Day for Night” and “Mississippi Mermaid” (I know it is not generally considered one of his better films).

    #1 Psycho

    The Apartment
    Peeping Tom
    La Dolce Vita
    Shoot the Piano Player
    Black Sunday
    Elmer Gantry

    Comanche Station is good though I do not believe it is one of the best Boetticher/Scott westerns.

  2. My Own #1 Film of 1960:

    The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak; India)


    Devi (S. Ray; India)
    Psycho (Hitchcock)
    The White Dove (Vlacil; Czechoslovakia)
    The Naked Island (Shindo; Japan)
    When A Woman Ascens the Stairs (Naruse; Japan)
    Black Sunday (Bava; Italy)
    Les Bonnes Femme (Chabrol; France)
    L'Aventura (Antonioni; Italy)
    La Dolce Vita (Fellini; Italy)
    The Virgin Spring (Bergman; Sweden)
    Spartacus (Kubrick)
    Breathless (Godard; France)
    The Apartment (Wilder)
    Paris Nous Appartement (Rivette; France)
    Shoot the Piano Player (Truffaut; France)
    Rocco and His Brothers (Visconti; Italy)

    Great and passionate consideration there of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER, which is surely one of the New Wave's most celebrated films (and one of Truffaut's best) Of course 1960 was also a banner year for Eurpean and Asian cinema, and I dare say it ushered in the 'beginning' of so many renowned movements. My own top film is as shattering a film as has ever been made in India, and Ray's DEVI is just about as great too. Note: I included BREATLESS for 1959.

  3. John, great comments! I still need to see BLACK SUNDAY and ELMER GANTRY. I struggled with THE APARTMENT, PEEPING TOM, and LA DOLCE VITA the one time I saw all of them. At some point though I probably owe them a revisit. I like SPARTACUS although a little less than the ones I mention above. And BREATHLESS I had for 1959.

    Thanks, John! Always wonderful to hear from you.

  4. Sam, I'm really looking forward to seeing that Ghatak film! I've heard many great things about it.

    I like LES BONNES FEMMES although a little less than LE TROU. And, PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT is one I struggled with the first time but will revisit at some point.

    Thanks for the words on PIANO PLAYER and for the great comments! Always a treat to have you here.

  5. Oh, and Sam, I forgot to mention. I had L'AVVENTURA in my 1959 post.

  6. One of my favorite Truffaut films as well and I am always amazed when I hear folks bad-mouthing it. It's a lovely, funny, exciting and moving film that really haunts me. The performances are incredible, the music is sublime and the black and white cinematography is stunning. Terrific choice Jeffrey. I am glad to hear that you value this special film so highly.

  7. Thanks, Jeremy! Yeah, it's definitely one of my all time faves. I agree about the performances and the cinematography. Everything works for me in this one. And whenever I watch it, I feel like I'm getting the opportunity to see Truffaut's passion on display, full blown, no holds barred.

    Always great to hear from you! Thanks, Jeremy.

  8. I have to admit that Shoot the Piano Player did very little for me. I didn't exactly dislike, but I was never really engaged either.

    1960 for me is a really close one - I almost can't decide between PSYCHO and THE APARTMENT. Since I have been in a major Wilder kick lately, I'll switch it up and go with The Apartment. It's one of the greatest comedies ever made and showcases what an incredible writer Billy Wilder was.

  9. Dave, our tastes most of the time run so close to one another that we're bound to feel differently about one here and there. Always great to hear from you. Thanks, Dave!

  10. Jeffrey, I've seen Shoot the Piano Player and liked it, but haven't seen Le Trou though I ought to. But if you like both then my most urgent recommendation to you from 1960 is Claude Sautet's Classe Tous Risques, starring Lino Ventura and Belmondo and co-written by Jose Giovanni. I still consider Peeping Tom my favorite of that year but the Sautet is the real sleeper in a strong field.

  11. Samuel, I've never seen that Sautet film but just put it on my queue. It sounds great! Thanks for the heads-up. Always awesome to have you here!