With his first film The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut crashed onto the scene and established himself as an up-and-coming new filmmaker. But Truffaut suspected that people were kind of hoping for more of the same thing with his second film – something about kids again, perhaps, or something that was perpetuating more of this new “French New Wave” style that was now becoming A Thing. So to avoid setting a pattern, Truffaut did something different – an homage to American-style mob films.
Sort of. Charlie (Charles Aznavour) isn’t in the mob as such; he is the pianist in a seedy Paris bar, living in a cramped flat next door with his kid brother Fido (Richard Kanayan) to a prostitute (Michele Mercier) who babysits Fido and occasionally lets Charlie have a freebie if she doesn’t have any other clients. Charlie’s older brothers are connected to the mob, though – or at least, they run afoul of the mob, tricking them out of the proceeds from a bank heist. They’ve slipped off to the family farm out in the country – so the mob comes after Charlie, hoping to capture either him or Fido, holding them hostage in exchange for the money. Charlie does what he can to dodge them and keep Fido safe – but the mobsters surprise him at the bar one afternoon, strong-arming him into their car. They also kidnap Lena (Marie Dubois), the pretty waitress on whom Charlie has a secret crush. Fortunately Lena is smart as well as pretty, and quickly puts a stop to their plan, dragging Charlie along on her escape. Charlie is further delighted to hear her suggest they should lay low in her own apartment – but then delight turns to shock when they get there, and Charlie sees Lena has a poster with his face on it.
And featuring his real name. For Lena knows his secret – he is actually Édouard Saroyan, a formerly celebrated concert pianist who suddenly dropped out of the limelight. Lena is also interested in Charlie, but she wants to know the story there first, understandably. Moved by his tale – success drove a wedge between himself and his wife, prompting his wife to suddenly reveal she’d slept with the agent who gave him his big break – Lena kisses Charlie, and the two…er, bond. Later they slip away to Charlie/Édouard’s brother’s hideout to lay low – but the gangsters track them down, forcing the Saroyan brothers into a stakeout to defend their money and Lena.
It definitely seems more of an “American” plot, as Truffaut hoped – but there’s still a definite “New Wave” feel, with some moments where we hear Charlie’s inner monologue or where the film dives off on a brief tangent unrelated to the plot, like a charming early moment where Charlie is running headlong down a dark street to dodge the gangsters and trips and faceplants on a sidewalk just as another man is passing. The man helps him up and walks with him a short ways, showing Charlie the flowers he’s just bought his wife and talking about how much he loves her before they part. That actually sets up an interesting thematic subtext for the film; Charlie’s quest isn’t just to stay safe, he’s also a bit of a romantic looking for Real Love, who’s half-convinced himself he doesn’t deserve it. Both of the occasions he’s walking down a street with Lena, we hear his inner thoughts as he tries to talk himself into holding her hand or making some other romantic gesture, or kicking himself when he chickens out.
Charlie’s hesitancy is all Truffaut’s own invention, and I actually liked it. The film was inspired by a novel, in which Charlie is a much more assertive character. Truffaut made Charlie more of a hesitant, beaten-down character – and it fits the character much better, and makes his story more poignant. When we meet Charlie he’s on the verge of convincing himself he doesn’t deserve any better than the occasional hookup, and hardly dares hope Lena would reciprocate his interest. Lena’s reaction to his story gives him hope – which eventually is dashed again. Aznavour almost gives a non-performance, barely reacting to the things that happen to Charlie. But instead of coming across as wooden, it comes across as numb – just as numb as Charlie would be, and that is exactly why I find that final scene, with Charlie just sitting and playing piano again, so poignant in context.