The Nonesuch Records CD Georges Delerue: Music from the Films of Francois Truffaut is a fine way to mentally re-visit your favourite scenes from Truffaut’s oeuvre. It is a disc full of wonderful music from 9 of the 11 films that they made together. Best of all, it includes a 9-minute suite from Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Delerue’s most familiar and best-loved score. For two of the five STPP tracks, Hugo Wolff and the London Sinfonietta are joined by jazz pianist Fred Hersch, along with bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Matt Wilson.
Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur la pianiste) is Truffaut’s tragicomic take on film noir and the gangster tradition in movies. He adapted it from the (unremittingly) tragic novel Down There by American pulp novelist David Goodis, an unsung master of the hardboiled crime school. Truffaut moved the setting from Philadelphia to Paris, re-named a few of the characters, and added one or two more, as well as weaving in an anarchic thread of gallows humour. And yet, the resulting film, while unquestionably Gallic in its style and atmosphere, remains true to the heart and spirit of the book.
In a Montmartre gin mill, the titular character Charlie (Charles Aznavour) and his trio churn out honky-tonk dance music for a nightly audience of drunks, tarts and punters. Charlie, a little guy beaten down by personal tragedy and his failure to seize the moment, was once a concert pianist. He keeps himself apart from the world, including his employers and his petty-criminal brothers. A tough but lovely waitress named Lena (the luminous Marie Dubois) sees through his facade and offers the possibility of redemption, but ultimately their best intentions are caught up in a stream of bizarre and violent circumstances.
Delerue’s skill is aptly demonstrated by the use of his memorable theme “Charlie” — first heard under the opening credits — which Charlie’s trio plays in the bar in an early scene and at the film’s end. It’s a charming little music-box ditty, adapted for the bal musette. After the melody is well-established, it breaks away into a brief and swinging variation, with the piano notes stepping cheerily above and between the rhythmic dance of the bass and drums. It is music that, if not actually happy, at least allows for the possibility of happiness.
But when Charlie returns to the bar after his adventures, beaten down once again, and sits back down at the piano, his old bal musette melody has lost its Gallic swagger. Fred Hersch’s trio recreates this moment beautifully on the Nonesuch CD. It is the same song, but the cheery dancing quality is gone, and the rhythm section comes down flat-footed, foursquare, and forlorn. Behind the piano, the orchestra plays long descending minor chords. It is the perfect counterpart to Aznavour’s thousand-yard stare in the final shot — and even to the last lines of the Goodis novel:
“That’s fine piano, he thought. Who’s playing that?
“He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keys.”
— David Goodis, Down There (1956)
Georges Delerue: Music from the Films of Francois Truffaut, with Hugo Wolff conducting the London Sinfonietta, is available on CD in the Nonesuch Film Series. A two-disc special edition DVD of Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, with many fascinating extra features, was released by Criterion in 2005. The novel Shoot the Piano Player (Down There) by David Goodis is available in paperback from Vintage under the “Black LIzard” imprint.