174 Shoot the piano player’s girlfriend

That François Truffaut’s masterly film Shoot the piano player is based on the David Goodis novel Down there is acknowledged by the director. What Truffaut did not realize is that Goodis’s book is a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Victory. [Having published this discovery in 2003, Schwartz is dismayed that no one seems interested in it. Cahiers du Cinéma did not answer his mail on the subject.]

In the romantic thriller Shoot the piano player (1960) by François Truffaut (1932-1984), it is not the piano player who gets shot. The piano player, Charlie Kohler, plays bar music in a shabby Paris café. He is unhealthily withdrawn and unwilling to talk about himself. In a flashback, his retreat from life is provided with a concrete reason. There was a time when he played piano not in cheap cafés but in concert halls, under his real name, Edouard Saroyan. His career was going brilliantly, but his marriage, to a waitress named Théresa, is suffering from it. He is completely self-absorbed and unable to stand the slightest criticism. Théresa becomes morose, to a degree not explainable by Edouard’s behavior alone. On a concert tour, she finally confesses to him what is bothering her. In order to get him the contract that launched his career, she slept with his impresario. She craves his forgiveness, which he is unable to give. He slams the door on her, and she jumps out of the hotel window to her death. Edouard becomes Charlie.

The action of the film takes place against this heavy psychological background. Charlie is jolted out of his isolation by two events. One of his criminal brothers comes to him for help when two gangsters he has double-crossed follow him to the café; and he and the waitress Léna fall in love with each other. The plot is an intertwining of these themes. It ends tragically at the Saroyan family home in the country, where Charlie and Léna have fled. The gangsters find them there, and in a shootout between them and the brothers, Léna is shot and killed.

Shoot the piano player is a faithful filming of an American crime novel, Down there by David Goodis (1917-1967). Goodis’s own life was something like Charlie’s. As Bleeker Books.com encapsulates it: “David Goodis started out with great promise, only to see a promising career turn into a slide to oblivion. He got off to a good start – his second novel, Dark Passage was made into a successful movie – before his personal decline … After the success of Passage, Goodis became more and more eccentric, eventually moving from Hollywood to his native Philadephia to live with his parents. Having given up his dreams and dropped out of society, he began to write about life’s losers, those who become dropouts themselves.”

The difference in cultural status between Truffaut and Goodis has led some critics to treat the novel like a kind of objet trouvé which did not become art until it was picked up from the street by the genius moviemaker. To his discredit, Roger Greenspun wrote: “With perfect instinct, Truffaut has utilized most of the events in David Goodis’s miserable novel, merely moving them from New York and Philadelphia to Paris, while rejecting almost all its interpretations of them.” In fact, Truffaut’s main departure from the novel is – I say this reluctantly, as an admirer of the film – cheaply sentimental. He gives the three grown Saroyan brothers a cute 10- or 11-year-old sibling who is kidnapped by the thugs. Nearly all the features for which Shoot the piano player is praised by film critics, including the flashback, the interior monologue, the comic turns, come straight out of Down there.

In the film literature, Shoot the piano player has gone down in the terms in which it is presented by Truffaut: a homage to American noir novels and movies. It has always surprised me that neither Truffaut, who wrote and talked frequently about Shoot the piano player, nor as far as I know anyone else who has written about this modern classic, has realized that Down there is a retelling of a great early 20th-century novel by the Ukrainian-Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad (1857-1924): Victory: an island tale (1915), which has been filmed at least four times. Goodis took far greater liberties with his source than Truffaut with his, but the debt to Conrad is unmistakable. Victory too is the story of a man who has retreated from society and is drawn out of his isolation by a young woman and a pair of gangsters. It takes place in a hotel-restaurant with musical entertainment, provided by an all-female orchestra in which the girl plays violin. In both books the girl is pursued by her married male boss, under the eyes of his wife, and is rescued from him by the (anti-)hero. The man and the girl are chased to the man’s remote hideaway by the thugs. She protects him with cunning and courage until, at the climax, she is shot dead by one of the gangsters. If these hints were not broad enough – Conrad’s girl, like Goodis’s and Truffaut’s, is also named Lena.

It’s too bad that Truffaut did not know the source of this heartbreaking tale, with the power of a myth. If he had, he might not have ended his film with another cheap shot that occurs neither in Goodis nor Conrad. After the death of Léna, Charlie, like Goodis’s piano player, returns to the café. In the film, though, he is introduced to the new waitress who has come to replace Léna. With an implicit wink at the audience Truffaut suggests that she will be the third woman in Charlie’s life, as if there were nothing wrong with him that another waitress in his bed couldn’t cure.

To Conrad, the victory of the title belonged to Lena, in her death.

“Who else could have done this for you?” she whispered gloriously.

“No one in the world,” he answered her in a murmur of unconcealed despair.

In that despair, he surrendered the life for which Lena had sacrificed hers and simply let himself be killed. Had he read Victory, Truffaut would have realized that his film was not a comedy.

© Gary Schwartz 2003. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, 4 January 2003. Tenth anniversary re-issue 1 June 2013.
_______________________
The New Year has begun for us as the Old Year ended: in a house full of carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians, heating installers, marble restorers, fabric hangers, monument consultants and bankers. We set out the main lines of this operation jointly, but Loekie is the overseer of the fabrica. She coordinates everything brilliantly, keeping the workers out of each other’s way, supervising their tasks and monitoring their performance.

We also bought a new stove, one of those Italian stainless-steel semi-professional jobs, and a new car, a hybrid electric-internal combustion model by Toyota that is the most comfortable car we’ve ever had. I understand from the New York Times that Leonardo di Caprio and Meryl Streep also ride in a Prius, which I well understand. Earlier in the year we finally bought a dishwasher and a kitchen machine.

It isn’t as if we can afford all of this. It’s all paid for out of new debt. As it happens, I can trace this spending jag to its origins, which I hereby recount as a contribution to the discussion of the state of the world economy. It all began at a lunch at the Astra Restaurant outside Sibiu, Romania, on March 17th, 2001. Loekie was sitting next to the host of a group lunch, the extraordinary Brussels art dealer Jan De Maere. De Maere told her that he had bought several old houses in a picturesque village on the other side of Sibiu, for very little money. He told her about another house that he had not bought, and that was on the market for 12,500 guilders. That afternoon we went to his village with De Maere, saw the little house he had spoken of, and fell in love with it.

To make a long story short, that deal never materialized, and another, to buy a larger house for 39,000 D-Marks, fell through. At that point, we decided not to buy a house outside the country at all, but to use the money we were apparently prepared to spend on our own house. We were going to start by turning our large shed into a studio and guest house. While working on this idea, we realized that the main house was in need of repair and renovation, and that we could not very well rebuild the shed without doing the house first. At this moment, our bank called us to point out that our mortgage was ridiculously small, and offered us monstrous amounts of credit on our house. In Holland, the interest on home-repair loans is still deductible from income tax, making it all the easier to take the plunge. We did.

As the estimates piled up, to an amount considerably higher than 12,500 guilders, the cost of things like dishwashers and kitchen machines – our lack of these shows how economically we had been living until then – looked derisory. Even new cars looked like a sensible buy. Yet, in quiet moments (rare these days), I find myself wondering what the hell has gotten into us. A possible answer to this question occurred to me when I heard some captain of industry or other comment at year’s end on the world economy. Everything was falling to pieces, he said, and the only reason we are not in a vicious downward spiral is that consumer spending is holding up. Consumers, he said, still have faith in the economy.

I had a Eureka moment. No, I thought, you’re wrong. It’s exactly because we consumers have no faith at all in the economy that we are letting ourselves go. We know as well as your average captain of industry that the economy is going to the dogs. What this says to us, perhaps not out loud, is that we may never again be able to dispose, even in the form of debt, over the amounts we can spend now. Can that be the secret ingredient that is keeping us from going into a downward spiral? Consumers’ fear of the future, combined with desperate lending by banks?

In support of this notion is one of the reasons we were prepared to dish out money for a house in a Romanian village: you can live off the land there, if the Western economy falls to pieces. In the meanwhile, we are spending lots more on things that you can’t live off. If this is typical, then the real crash might still be awaiting us. What to do? Quick, spend some more money. On to the shed.

Two of the best men I know died in the past two weeks. On December 23rd, Julius Held passed on in his mid-90s. He was one of the great 20th-century students of Dutch and Flemish art, and one of the teachers (at Barnard College) who put art history in America on its feet. Julius kept up his work and his correspondence to the end. I have known him since the 1970s, and at one point, after the appearance of my book on Rembrandt in 1984, our relations suffered a strain. However, this was all forgotten when in 1992 I made use of a discovery of his concerning a painting by Jacob van Campen to further its acquisition by the Mauritshuis. In the years afterward I corresponded with him regularly, and I dedicated to him an article I wrote on one of his subjects: the Antwerp kunstkamer paintings.

On New Years Day the world lost Bas Kist, the retired curator of Dutch history at the Rijksmuseum, at the age of 69. Working mainly in the field of arms and armor, which has never been fashionable here, he was a pioneer and an explorer. Unlike most art historians, he loved conceptual and technical precision. This got him into arguments with his colleagues, which were always tempered by his sense of humor and good nature. He helped me sharpen my ideas on militarism in the Dutch 17th century, for my work on this subject in 1998, and provided invaluable support for my book on The Night Watch, which appeared last year. The last time I saw him was at the opening of the East India Company exhibition at the Rijksmuseum on October 9th. He was indispensable, and now we have to live on without him.

Responses are always appreciated and answered: Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

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