Piano [1993]

A man runs through deserted night streets, stalked by the lights of a car. It's a definitive film noir situation, promptly sidetracked--yet curiously not undercut--by real-life slapstick: watching over his shoulder for pursuers, the running man charges smack into a lamppost. The figure that helps him to his feet is not one of the pursuers (they've oddly disappeared) but an anonymous passerby, who proceeds to escort him for a block or two, genially schmoozing about the mundane, slow-blooming glories of marriage. The Good Samaritan departs at the next turning, never to be identified and never to be seen again. And the first man--who, despite this evocative introduction, is not even destined to be the main character of the movie--immediately resumes his helter-skelter flight from an as-yet-unspecified and unseen menace. The opening of Shoot the Piano Player, Fran├žois Truffaut's second feature film, is one of the signal moments of the French New Wave--an inspired intersection of grim fatality and happy accident, location shooting and lurid melodrama, movie convention and frowzy, uncontainable life. At this point in his career--right after The 400 Blows, just before his great Jules and Jim--the world seemed wide for Truffaut, as wide as the Dyaliscope screen that he and cinematographer Raoul Coutard deployed with unprecedented spontaneity and lyricism. Anything might wander into frame and become part of the flow: an oddball digression, an unexpected change of mood, a small miracle of poetic insight. The official agenda of the movie is adapting a noirish story by American writer David Goodis, about a celebrated concert musician (Charles Aznavour) hiding out as a piano player in a saloon. He's on the run as much as the guy--his older brother--in the first scene. But whereas the brother is worried about a couple of buffoonish gangsters, Charlie Koller is ducking out on life, love, and the possibility that he might be hurt, or cause hurt, again. Decades after its original release, Shoot the Piano Player remains as fresh, exhilarating, and heartbreaking--as open to the magic of movies and life--as ever. --Richard T. Jameson

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