A hapless pianist at a jazz club gets caught up with the mob, when his older brother who owes money to them comes to him for help. Eventually, the piano player and his girlfriend become pawns in middle of a dangerous game.
Truffaut first read David Goodis’s novel in the mid-1950s while shooting Les Mistons when his wife Madeleine Morgenstern read it and recommended it to him. He immediately loved the book’s dialogue and poetic tone and showed it to producer Pierre Braunberger, who bought the rights. Truffaut later met Goodis in New York City, where the novelist gave Truffaut a vintage viewfinder from his brief experience as a 2nd Unit Director on a U.S. film.
Truffaut said he made the film in reaction to the success of The 400 Blows, which he considered to be very French. He wanted to show his influence from American films. He later told a reporter that he wanted to shock the audience that had loved The 400 Blows by making a film that would “please the real film nuts and them alone.” He previously had several ideas for films about children, but was afraid of repeating himself in his second film. He told a reporter, “I refused to be a prisoner of my own first success. I discarded temptation to renew that success by choosing a “great subject”. I turned my back on what everyone waited for and I took my pleasure as my only rule of conduct.”
Truffaut began writing the script with Marcel Moussy, who had co-written The 400 Blows. Moussey said that he didn’t understand the book and attempted to establish clear social roots for the characters. Truffaut disagreed, wanting to keep the film loose and abstract; Moussey left after a few weeks and Truffaut wrote the script himself. One problem Truffaut had was that he considered the Goodis novel to be too chaste and he decided to make the characters less heroic. The book’s main character Charlie is also much stronger in the book and Truffaut called it a Sterling Hayden type. Truffaut decided to go the opposite direction and make the protagonist weaker and the female characters strong. Truffaut was also influenced by French writer Jacques Audiberti while writing the film, such as in his treatment of the character Plyne. Truffaut also used some scenes from other Goodis novels, such as the early scene where Chico bumps into a lamp post and has a conversation with a stranger.
Shoot the Piano Player was first shown at the London Film Festival on October 21, 1960. It later premiered in Paris on November 22 and in the U.K. on December 8. It did not premier in the U.S. until July 1962.
The film was financially unsuccessful, although it was popular among “cinephiles” such as Claude Miller. Miller was then a film student at IDHEC and later explained that he and his friends knew all the films dialogue by heart, stating, “We cited it all the time; it became a kind of in language.”
Film critic Marcel Martin called it a disappointment after The 400 Blows and said that it would “only please the true lover of movies.” In Variety, film critic “Mosk” called its script meandering and Bosley Crowther said that the film “did not hold together.” Pauline Kael called Aznavour’s performance “intensley human and sympathetic” and Andrew Sarris praised the film, stating “great art can also be great fun.” Dwight MacDonald said that the film mixes up “three genres which are usually kept apart: crime melodrama, romance and slapstick…I thought the mixture didn’t gel, but it was an exhilarating try.” Jacques Rivette initially complained to Truffaut that Charlie was “a bastard”, but later said that he liked the film.