It's the sad songs that always come back to haunt you.
Above is a stunning Belgian poster in French and Dutch for François Truffaut's comi-tragic crime tale Tirez sur le pianiste, known in Dutch as Schiet op de pianist, in English as Shoot the Piano Player, and which starred Charles Aznavour as a hard luck nightclub musician. We talked about the movie in detail back in November. Shorter version: when French New Wave meets film noir strange things happen. There's no release date for Belgium but the movie probably opened there shortly after its premiere in France, which was in November 1960.
Songs of sadness, loneliness, and forgetting.
Above is a poster for the French crime drama Tirez sur le pianiste, known in English as Shoot the Piano Player, and based upon the David Goodis novel Down There. We raved about the book. The movie? Well, you're supposed to love it. Make no mistake there. Though it received mixed reviews when released, most critics rhapsodize it now. This isn't unusual. Opinion will shift over time. Since director François Truffaut said he intended to make a film mainly for cinephiles, it makes sense that it eventually won critics over. The question is will it win you over?
Truffaut took a quintessentially American novel and converted it into something quintessentially French. This wasn't his initial intention. He wanted to pay tribute to American films. There are certainly American references, but he couldn't help but let his French nature come through. For example, where the book conjures torch songs and jazz, Truffaut cast singer/songwriter Charles Aznavour in the lead, and the music he plays is mostly folk songs and ditties. It's a major shift in mood. Truffaut also elected to leaven the terminal darkness of the novel with humor.
But you have to judge the product on its own merits, so if you pretend you never opened the book, Tirez sur le pianiste is certainly interesting. Truffaut either wasn't aiming for or didn't have the budget to seek technical perfection. The shadow of his camera pops up. The physical action is disjointed and unconvincing. But the film is also kinetic and beautifully shot. There's a kind of guerrilla style to it, a feel of a director doing anything that comes to mind and the story following along. We were aware of watching something uniquely artful, but not uniquely successful. So again, the question is, will it win you over? We can't say. Try it and see for yourself. Tirez sur le pianiste premiered in France today in 1960.
Goodis gets down and dirty while Hooks takes it up a notch.
This cover for David Goodis's 1956 novel Down There was painted by Mitchell Hooks, one of the unique talents of the paperback art era. Hooks worked in different modes. Often he utilized the type of line art you'd find in a high quality comic book or graphic novel, such as here and here. Other times he used color blocking for his backgrounds, such as on the above cover and the one you see at this link. He also used a lot of color bleeds, an example of which you see on his brilliant front for Madball, the second one at this link. And he worked in a more realistic mode too, when the mood struck. For Down There he mixed techniques, using a bleed in black to impart a film noir feel, and pairing his two figures with his trademark color-blocking. The effect is magnificent. Hooks was simply a highly versatile artist who always managed to surprise, and that makes his work a constant pleasure to seek out.
His cover for Down There fits Goodis like a glove. The novel is the unrelentingly grim story of a man whose piano playing genius saves him from a life of crime and transforms him into a classical music star, but who is inexorably dragged back into the depths of violence and revenge when his criminal brother needs protection. We soon learn that there are two brothers, both crooks, both neck deep in organized crime trouble. The reader catches no breaks—Goodis is matter-of-factly dark, spinning the tale from the point-of-view of an emotionally crippled main character, and crushing hope in heartwrenching ways that make the turning of pages a real effort at times.
Why put yourself through something like this? Well, it's very stylish, so much so that French director François Truffaut fell in love with it and adapted it to film in the form of Tirez sur le pianiste, known in English as Shoot the Piano Player. Truffaut was world famous after winning best director at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival for Les Quatre Cents Coups, aka The 400 Blows, so choosing Down There for his next project says plenty about the book. Goodis was well received by French directors in general. Other adaptations of his work were made by Pierre Chenal, Jacques Tourneur, Henri Verneuil, Francis Girod, René Clément, Gilles Behat, and Jean-Jacques Beineix. That's just remarkable. We'll probably watch some of those films, and you can be sure we'll revisit both David Goodis and Mitchell Hooks imminently.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1919—Wilson Suffers Stroke
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson suffers a massive stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. He is confined to bed for weeks, but eventually resumes his duties, though his participation is little more than perfunctory. Wilson remains disabled throughout the remainder of his term in office, and the rest of his life.
1968—Massacre in Mexico
Ten days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics
in Mexico City, a peaceful student demonstration ends in the Tlatelolco Massacre. 200 to 300 students are gunned down, and to this day there is no consensus about how or why the shooting began.
1910—Los Angeles Times Bombed
A massive dynamite bomb destroys the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles, California, killing 21 people. Police arrest James B. McNamara and his brother John J. McNamara. Though the brothers are represented by the era's most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, they eventually plead guilty. James is convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. His brother John is convicted of a separate bombing of the Llewellyn Iron Works and also sent to prison.
1975—Ali Defeats Frazier in Manila
In the Philippines, an epic heavyweight boxing match known as the Thrilla in Manila takes place between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It is the third, final and most brutal match between the two, and Ali wins by TKO in the fourteenth round.
1955—James Dean Dies in Auto Accident
American actor James Dean, who appeared in the films Giant
, East of Eden
, and the iconic Rebel without a Cause
, dies in an auto accident
at age 24 when his Porsche 550 Spyder is hit head-on by a larger Ford coupe. The driver of the Ford had been trying to make a left turn across the rural highway U.S. Route 466 and never saw Dean's small sports car approaching.
1962—Chavez Founds UFW
Mexican-American farm worker César Chávez founds the United Farm Workers in California. His strikes, marches and boycotts eventually result in improved working conditions for manual farm laborers and today his birthday is celebrated as a holiday in eight U.S. states.
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