Friday, January 2, 2009

A chance to see an early Truffaut

"Shoot the Piano Player" (1960) was Francois Truffaut's first movie after his groundbreaking "400 Blows," which debuted a year earlier. if you live in Denver, you can see the film in re-release at the Starz Denver Film Center starting Friday (Jan. 2). Although Truffaut made better films, few match "Shoot the Piano Player" for sheer cinematic playfulness and audacity. Cliche has it -- and cliche can sometimes be right -- that Truffaut mixed a variety of genres without fretting too much about whether they matched. classifies the movie in four ways, calling it a drama, a romance, a thriller and a big-screen helping of crime.

As part of the French New Wave, Truffaut was intent on vanquishing genre lines while at the same time paying homage to the kinds of Hollywood fare that inspired so many French filmmakers. His film, based on a novel by David Goodis, is both a self-contained story and a breezy meditation on a wide range of movie strategies.

The story revolves around a pianist played by singer Charles Aznavour. Aznavour begins the movie as Charlie Kohler, a musician working a lowdown Parisian bar. As the tale unfolds, we learn that Charlie once was a world-class concert pianist named Edouard Saroyan. The movie contains a long flashback about Charlie's life as Edouard. It also explores the pianist's ill-fated relationships with women and with a couple of criminal brothers. I haven't even mentioned a younger brother who lives with Charlie and who's looked after by a prostitute, another of Charlie's lovers.

Those are plenty of ingredients for one movie, but Truffaut manages to keep things humming, and some of the better bits are priceless. An example: the unexpected and very funny dialogue in a scene in which two thugs drive Charlie's younger brother, whom they've kidnapped, to the country as part of a plan to retrieve lost loot.

"Shoot the Piano Player" returns us -- at least momentarily -- to a time when directors thought that cinema was alive with possibility. Truffaut, who died in 1984, was 28 when the film was released.

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