Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.

Laura (1944)

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Laura

After seeing something on Twitter about the film Laura, I was intrigued. With a hard-boiled detective, a beautiful, dead woman, a load of suspects to sift through and lots of plot twists, Laura held my interest. It’s about a notch down from a Raymond Chandler film. It starts with a wiry, old snob typing away in his bathtub. He’s narrating and telling us about Laura’s disappearance. Soon we learn more about this beautiful woman, who’s about to marry a hick from high society, played by a young Vincent Price. Her maid discovered her dead body. She’s got a great apartment and job and every Tuesday and Friday she dines with this snobbish radio personality who’s obsessed with her.

Enter Detective McPherson who’s cut from Philip Marlowe’s cloth. He’s sent to do a job, but before you know it he’s smitten with the victim.  He’s also aggravated Laura’s fiancé, who it turns out has no money, and the old snob. Both look like good candidates for the culprit. Yet a 180° plot turn pops up as McPherson’s daydreaming about Laura and the plot keeps getting twisted.

The story’s not on the level of a Raymond Chandler film starring Bogart, but it moves along and kept me guessing.

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Stray Dog

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The first noir crime film in Japan, in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) rookie detective, Murakami, gets his pistol stolen while he’s riding a crowded bus. Humiliated, Murakami (Mifune) takes responsibility for his carelessness and begs his boss to fire him. The pragmatic boss brushes his request away and pairs the rookie with a veteran detective (Shimura) named Sato. The two set out to track down the pistol.

Plagued by guilt, Mifune is obsessed with finding his pistol and disguises himself to search the black markets of aprés-guerre Tokyo. We see the squalor and darkness of these markets (which aren’t quite as bad as the poverty in Dos’ka den). These scenes are beautifully and masterfully shot to show this underworld full of hustlers, prostitutes, bums and drunks.

Aprés-guerre is a term Murakami and Sato discuss at length as Sato notices the difference between the pre-WWII generation and the aprés-guerre generation. A WWII veteran, Murakami expresses his sympathy and understanding for the culprit whom he imagines is a product of a rough society. Yusa, the thief, also is a veteran so Murakami identifies with him and knows how the war damaged the soldiers.

However, Sato tells him that thinking is generational and won’t help a cop do his work. If a cop’s philosophy views a criminal as being without choice or responsibility, the officer just won’t be able to work as he should, Sato asserts. Sato reminds Murakami that he’s chosen law and order, while Yusa’s chosen exploitation and crime. There is a difference, a big one.

As time passes, the missing gun is used in robberies and a murder. Murakami knows the pistol had all seven bullets and the plot becomes a race to get to the gun. In this race, the heroes’ search takes us through Japanese society from local watering holes, to a packed baseball field, to a burlesque hall, to a filthy shanty and to Sato’s simple, loving home. Along the way we’re treated to Sato’s wise practice.  It’s fascinating to see him deal with each subject, be it a showgirl or a pickpocket, with just the right approach. His understanding of people makes chasing and shootouts unnecessary.

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I learned about Stray Dog from the commentary feature with the Drunken Angel DVD. Mifune and Shimura starred in Drunken Angel. Here they both play completely different characters. Mifune moves from angry gangster to exemplary rookie cop and Shimura shifts from righteous drunk doctor to wise, veteran cop. Another pivotal performance was given by Keiko Awaji, who plays a showgirl, an uncooperative witness. In the extra features, Awaji explains how she didn’t want to be in this or any film. She wanted a career in operettas, but she got talked into this role. She was terribly pouty and unpleasant about the filming process and this difficult attitude made her performance work. Go figure.

I never intended to get into Japanese films as much as I have. I now have been so impressed with the stellar performances that it’s clear that it’s high time I learn the names of these actors.

Here’s a compilation of Mifune’s performances:

Dragnet Girl

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Dragnet Girl: Joji (l) and Tokiko (r)

Director Ozu’s Dragnet Girl is an absorbing silent film about Tokiko,a gangster moll, who becomes jealous when Joji, her boyfriend, gets a case of the wandering eye. Tokiko looks as sweet as can be, but actually she’s quite a coquette. She works at a company by day and the boss’s son is smitten with her plying her with expensive gifts that she’s happy to take.

Her night’s are spent with Joji, the head of a small crime outfit that seems to fix boxing matches. Tokiko is Joji’s main squeeze. Selfish and extravagant, she’s quite brazen and disloyal as she’ll wear her boss’s gifts in front of Joji.

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Kazuko

When a high school boy, impressed with Joji’s flash and power, tries to join his gang, the boy’s sister, Kazuko, who’s simple and innocent, begs Joji to get her brother back on the straight and narrow. Joji’s instantly smitten with Kazuko. He starts hanging around her music shop and starts appreciating classical music and all that Kazuko, who pays him no mind, appreciates.

At first Tokiko dismisses her rival, but when she sees that Joji is changing for real she gets nervous. She goes as far as plotting to shoot Kazuko, but then she comes to appreciate Kazuko’s magnetic innocence. Tokiko is not to be trusted after telling Joji she wants to change and become more like her rival. She’s been branded as a delinquent and that label’s impossible to remove.

The film has the style of a noir classic and takes some interesting turns as Tokiko refuses to marry her boss and plots to rob him with Joji. It’s a beautiful simple film that didn’t need talking.

The Big Sleep

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In honor of Lauren Bacall, I watched The Big Sleep, a classic from 1946. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel, The Big Sleep involves detective Philip Marlow trying to keep a rich man’s degenerate daughters out of trouble and to find out who killed Sean Ryan, who worked for the rich father. The plot gets quite confusing and even the director and cast had trouble figuring out who killed whom. The snappy dialog and chemistry between Bogart and Bacall make us forgive the film for confusing us and for not following the maxim of providing a hero who undergoes a transformation.

Some favorite quotations:

(Female) Taxi Driver: If you can use me again sometime, call this number.
Philip Marlowe: Day and night?
Taxi Driver: Uh, night’s better. I work during the day.

Vivian: I don’t like your manners.
Marlowe: And I’m not crazy about yours. I didn’t ask to see you. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners, I don’t like them myself. They are pretty bad. I grieve over them on long winter evenings. I don’t mind your ritzing me drinking your lunch out of a bottle. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.

IMDB offers some interesting trivia on the film.

“Film Noir” by Nicholas Christopher

The girl on the rooftop stares out
over the city and grips a cold revolver.
Laundry flaps around her in the hot night.
Each streetlight halos a sinister act.
People are trapped in their beds, dreaming of
the A-bomb and hatching get-rich-quick schemes.
Pickpockets and grifters prowl the streets.
Hit-men stalk informers and crooked cops hide in churches.
Are there no more picket fences and tea parties
in America? Does no one have a birthday anymore?
Even the ballgames are fixed, and the quiz shows.
Airplanes full of widows circle the skyline.
Young couples elope in stolen cars.
All the prostitutes were wronged terribly in childhood.
They wear polka dot skirts, black gloves, and trench coats.
Men strut around in boxy suits, fedoras, and palm-tree ties.
They jam into nightclubs or brawl in hotel rooms
while saxophone music drowns out their cries.
The girl in the shadows drops the revolver
and pushes through the laundry to the edge of the roof.
Her eyes are glassy, her hair blows wild.
She looks down at her lover sprawled on the sidewalk
and she screams.
A crowd gathers in a pool of neon.
It starts to rain.