The Criterion Files: Le Doulos/Shoot the Piano Player

We’re back with another installment of The Criterion Files– this time with a double feature of the French persuasion. Three entries and six films in, this is still the first File to touch on the many numerous and great French filmmakers championed by the Criterion collection (and, as an aside, French films do seem to dominate Criterion titles more than most other cultures, but I could be wrong). Hence, I’m dedicating this entire piece to works hailing from the cool-as-ice Jean-Pierre Melville and the iconic François Truffaut.

Most of us might associate Melville’s name with Le Samourai or Le Cercle rouge, just as sure as the mere mention of Truffaut immediately calls The 400 Blows and Day for Night. Just to take us a bit off the beaten path of their respective oeuvres, we’re going to talk about Le Doulos and, one of my favorites from Truffaut, Shoot the Piano Player, two crime/noir titles from the 60s with little in common save for their shared cultural and genre roots (not to mention their interest in duplicity). The pleasure in the combination comes from watching how two masters of filmmaking approach the muscular, hard-boiled noir aesthetic and come up with completely different, but nonetheless excellent, results. I’ll let Melville take the floor to commence this edition of The Criterion Files:

Le Doulos, 1962, Jean-Pierre Melville

Even though Le Doulos is predated by Shoot the Piano Player, it feels fitting to start here given that Truffaut’s film failed financially and critically on its release where Melville’s fared far better. (Though Shoot, unsurprisingly, has since gained much greater favor among scholars and cineastes and critics.) Unlike Truffaut’s movie, Melville blends together French and American influences by adapting a French crime novel and filtering it through the lens of American crime cinema. The result is uniquely his own, a film boasting a stripped-down artistic sensibility as well as the macho attitudes of postwar American noirs; it’s a movie that perfectly encompasses Melville’s proclivities as a filmmaker and acts as something of a blueprint for the rest of his career. (It’s worth noting that in synthesizing French literature with American cinematic tropes, Le Doulos actually abandons, to a degree, the very model of filmmaking Melville helped to establish for other various Cahiers du Cinéma critics of La Nouvelle Vague.)

But forget about all of that, because Le Doulos, historical background aside, is a rich, brutal crime film that oozes style in every frame. Melville’s subjects are Maurice (Serge Reggiani) and Silien (iconic French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo), two partners in crime preparing for their latest heist upon Maurice’s release from prison. Silien’s not involving himself directly; he’s staying on the sidelines, helping put the pieces of the job into place while Maurice and another associate do the deed. Unfortunately, someone in their midst isn’t telling the truth about where their allegiances lie; in a world where loyalty means everything, somebody’s informing on the crooks to the police. Is it Silien? Is it Remy or Jean, two of Maurice’s and Silien’s accomplices? Or is it someone else entirely, someone nobody would immediately suspect?

Melville wraps his tale of honor among thieves in the visual style of the American noir, from his use of light and shadow to his costuming choices. It’s worth noting that the film’s title not only refers to a type of hat, but also functions as a piece of slang indicating a police informant; this bit of colloquial speech lends itself to the effect of marking a number of the characters we meet as the potential traitor. Thus, that veneer of stylishness adds more to the film than mere aesthetics. To connect Le Doulos to contemporary cinema, look no further than a release like last year’s Drive. While that particular film draws its details from other, more obvious sources, that sense of style for more than just style’s sake echoes Melville’s own work.

Better parallels may be found in The Departed, as well as the Infernal Affairs films that inspired Scorsese’s Oscar-winning mob drama. After all, nothing is nearer to Le Doulos‘ heart than the ties that bind our anti-heroes together. It is, above all else,a film about the deepest bonds of trust between Maurice and Silien, and how far they’re willing to go to protect each other from the law and from their enemies. 

Shoot the Piano Player, 1960, François Truffaut

If Le Doulos sounds somewhat somber, then fear not; Shoot the Piano Player is outright silly by comparison. That does the film an injustice; it’s actually something of a tragedy, but it’s hard to classify it strictly as Grecian when Truffaut’s so willfully comic at times. When, for example, a man swears on his mother’s soul that he’s telling the truth, the film cuts away to show the poor woman dying on the spot in the middle of her kitchen. And the entire argument leading up to that moment is itself fueled by humor as the man attempts to convince a young child that his tie is made out of Japanese metal. Shoot the Piano Player, unlike Melville’s film, is defined by a sense of levity blended with graver concerns about the fate of its hapless protagonist and also the relationship between artistry and commercialism. I’ll wager few saw that last one coming.

Shoot the Piano Player‘s central character is Charlie (Charles Aznavour), a former classical pianist who, after an at-first unmentioned tragedy years prior, has taken to whiling away his time stroking the keys at a bar in Paris. He’s broken down and maudlin; mostly, he keeps to himself, though he does care for his kid brother Fido and share a bed with a prostitute who lives in his building. Charlie’s self-imposed exile is disrupted by the sudden appearance of the boorish Chico (Albert Rémy), one of his older brothers, who’s gotten himself mixed up in some trouble with a pair of thugs after swindling them out of their share of the loot in a bank robbery. By extension, that means Charlie’s mixed up in the criminal debacle, too. And just when the beautiful waitress at the bar, Léna (Marie Dubois), was starting to take an interest in him. 

Unlike Le DoulosShoot the Piano Player is a bit tricky to nail down. If memory serves, Truffaut was heard to say that he expected men to laugh at it, and women to cry at it, and ignoring the gender distinctions it’s easy to see what he’s talking about. Shoot the Piano Player neither plays as straight comedy nor as straight tragedy; Truffaut plays much of the central plot for kicks, particularly in the form of Ernest (Daniel Boulanger) and Momo (Claude Mansard), the two tough guys chasing after Chico. It’s not until the film reveals that Charlie isn’t really who he says he is that things delve into more tragic realms, whereupon we learn that Charlie’s real name is Edouard, and that as he was on the verge of attaining huge success as a concert pianist, his wife committed suicide. And that’s where we meet him– at the piano of the dive bar where he’s taken refuge against the rest of the world, surrounded by people and yet totally isolated at the same time. In a way, he’s stuck in a paradox. He wants to escape the pain of his past, and yet the longer he remains connected to the piano, the longer he remains connected to the events that shattered his life. By the time we reach Shoot the Piano Player‘s climax, history threatens to repeat itself for poor Charlie, and we begin to wonder if maybe this is just his fate.

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