Smash debuts always seem to be something of a mixed blessing. Of course, everyone wants to be successful, and finding it right out of the gate has to be an ego boost, but it can also put an artist under unhelpful scrutiny and pressure. If your first work is a masterpiece, is there anywhere to go but down? With his first feature, 1959’s The 400 Blows, François Truffaut not only delivered a moving, staggeringly self-assured debut, he silenced the detractors who questioned if the high-profile Cahiers du cinema critic could transition to filmmaking, and even earned the Best Director award at Cannes -- no small feat considering they had banned him from the festival just a year before. The film was a critical and commercial hit all over the world – the Akira Kurosawa even called it “one of the most beautiful films that I have ever seen” - and became a foundational text for the budding French New Wave, so expectations certainly ran high for its follow up, Shoot the Piano Player. It did not satisfy them, not by a long shot. Still, if the film was met with disappointment, it was not Truffaut that failed the public, but the other way around.
“It looks, from where we are sitting, as though M. Truffaut went haywire in this film…”, wrote the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther, “It looks as though he had so many ideas for movies outpouring in his head, so many odd slants on comedy and drama and sheer clichés that he wanted to express, that he couldn’t quite control his material, which he got from a novel by David Goodis called Down There.” Crowther’s perception of the film as unwieldy and unfocused was seemingly echoed everywhere, with journalists and viewers alike unsure whether they were supposed to laugh or cry for Edouard Saroyan, the shy, haunted musician, or whether his attempts to escape his past amounted to an existential tragedy or a zany farce.
Once a famous concert pianist, we find Saroyan going by the name Charlie Kohler, pounding out honky-tonk in a Parisian dive bar, hoping his anonymous obscurity will atone for the guilt he’s carried since his wife’s suicide. His introverted isolation is broken when his brother, a petty crook, crashes back into his life, pursued by gangsters looking to even a score. Initially reluctant to get involved, Saroyan relents and helps his brother escape, but pays the price when the thugs turn their attention to the piano player himself and the few people who are close to him.
That broad outline suggests an ennui-filled portrait of damaged people trying, and ultimately failing, to escape the traumas that have made them who they are, and, by turns, it’s exactly that, but while Truffaut hits all the dramatic notes, he also injects large doses of irreverent slapstick and heartfelt romance, which somehow manage to fill out the character’s emotional registers without cancelling out the weight of their situation. It’s continually surprising when generic elements spiral in and out of the film, as when the menacing criminals turn out to be almost sweetly childish, or when a bumbling, comic chase suddenly turns deadly, but it’s never abrupt or distracting. It’s an ambitious concoction, and getting all of the wildly different elements to hang together would seem to be an immense challenge, but Truffaut makes it all seem so natural and unforced. What’s more, one would think that so much toying with narrative styles and tone would put visual aesthetics on the back burner, but it’s actually a quite handsome film, with every stylish directorial decision captured by Raoul Coutard’s unflinching black-and-white cinematography.
Viewed from a modern perspective, Truffaut’s fearless rejection of strict generic conventions is groundbreaking and wholly original, an achievement that still feels fresh after over half a century, but in its original context, the genre-bending seems to have come off as confusing rather than skillful, as if the director didn’t know what kind of film he wanted to make when in reality he was, quite masterfully, making several films at once. As David Ehrenstein noted, “It took a while for some critics and audiences to get used to a film that flew in the face of traditional dramatic expectations so broadly and mixed genre elements so freely,” but now that they have, it’s taken its rightful place as one of the most celebrated entries in Truffaut’s storied filmography. Nothing is likely to dislodge The 400 Blows as the title most associated with Truffaut’s genius - and that’s fine, it is the revelation it’s reputed to be - but it would have been a crime had time not intervened and restored Shoot the Piano Player’s tarnished reputation. The film may be a lot of things, a comedy, a drama, a romance and most certainly ahead of its time, but one thing it’s not is a victim of the sophomore slump.