Pierre Etaix, now 84, has almost single-handedly kept the concept of physical comedy alive in France (the legacy of Max Linder and Rene Clair), especially since the death of Jacques Tati over 30 years ago. He briefly worked with Tati, acted for Robert Bresson in Pickpocket, and has been directing and appearing in his own films for more than a half-century. (Actually, as a director, Etaix has taken several long periods off to pursue careers as actor, circus clown, and writer). Etaix freely admits his debt to the silent era of Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He wrote, “People say I copy Keaton. That is not true at all…. It’s rather that my brand of humour belongs to a certain circus tradition which also nourished Keaton.” The Oscar-winning Happy Anniversary, which opens our program this week, was Etaix’s second short. He soon graduated to features, collaborating with Jean-Claude Carriere for a time, before the latter became the primary writer of Luis Buñuel’s late masterpieces.
After the international success of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, the director turned to adapting the noir-ish novel Down There, by the American David Goodis, an author who was considerably better known in France than here. (The director asserted that one of the reasons he made Tirez sur le pianiste [Shoot the Piano Player] was because he thought his first film was too French, and he wanted to establish his links with the American cinema and, essentially, B movies). Truffaut compared his film to the 1932 adaptation of Georges Simenon’s La Nuit du Carrefour, by Truffaut’s mentor and father figure, Jean Renoir. Both films are marked by headlight-lit automobile journeys down country roads. (This was Renoir’s darkest period, also including works like La Chienne, in which he came closest to resembling Truffaut’s other hero, Alfred Hitchcock.) In the Truffaut film, many scenes are shot from inside the car, with the widescreen substituting for the windshield. The director defended his use of the widescreen by comparing it with an aquarium, enabling the actors to move freely within the frame. There is much camera movement and characters running, as with Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows, suggesting that Truffaut himself was in a hurry, perhaps sensing he would die at a tragically young age. The character of Fido (the piano player’s comical kid brother), played by Richard Kanayan, reinforces the director’s recurring fascination with children.
At the heart of Shoot the Piano Player is Edouard Saroyan, alias Charlie Kohler, the concert pianist turned piano player, played by Charles Aznavour—“Entertainer of the Century,” according to a 1998 CNN poll. Although he has appeared in over five dozen films, ranging from L’Rat d’Amerique to The Yiddish Connection, his cinematic career could be all but forgotten or ignored, were it not for the Truffaut film. Born to Armenian parents in Paris, survivors of the 1915 genocide, Aznavour became a protégé of Edith Piaf as a teenager following World War II. His legendary career as a concert and recording star has made him world famous. Now 89, he continues to perform. (I saw him at New York’s City Center a couple of years ago on one of his “farewell tours,” and his voice and energy level were those of a man half his age.) Residing in Geneva, he also serves as Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland and delegate to the United Nations. Although he has gone on to innumerable honors, it is hard to imagine a French New Wave without Aznavour; he is just as indispensable a presence as Jean-Pierre Leaud, Jean-Paul Belmondo, or Jeanne Moreau. Although Truffaut and Aznavour kept up a regular correspondence, Truffaut turned down the opportunity of directing an autobiographical film treatment written by Aznavour in 1963, urging him to direct it himself. In a letter written in 1980, Truffaut told the actor/singer that in their work together, “it gave me a marvelous sense of security to have you on the set in front of me…attentive and open-minded, meticulous and flexible…nervous and poetic…. You’re a marvelous actor and, should the occasion arise, we’ll work together again one of these days.” Sadly, they never did.