DAVID GOODIS – Down There. Gold Medal #623, paperback original; 1st printing, January 1956. Also published as: Shoot the Piano Player, Black Cat, 1962. Reprinted several times under both titles.

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. Les Films de la Pléiade, France, 1960, as Tirez sur le pianiste. Astor Pictures Corporation, US, 1962 (subtitled). Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger and Serge Davri. Adapted by Francois Truffaut from the novel Down There by David Goodis. Directed by Francois Truffaut.

   In substance, Down There is pretty typical Gold Medal stuff, what with fist-fights, chases, mobsters, broads, and other rugged manly stuff –- the story is something about a threadbare piano player (Eddie in the book, Charlie in the film) at a seedy bar getting involved with gangs and a waitress — but flavored here with the boozy poetry unique to David Goodis. Goodis could hear the circular logic of a drunk and find in it the awesome redundancy of a Beethoven composition. His characters keep trying to grapple with the meaning of it all, keep losing, keep grappling….

   Oftentimes they succeed in resolving whatever the plot is – they catch the killer, foil the criminal, rescue the damsel – only to lose some more important objective, stuck in whatever personal swamp they started out the book in. So the final lesson of Down There is not just that You Can Go Home Again: your destiny was to never really leave.

   Shoot the Piano Player takes the fatalism of the novel and infuses it with director Francois Truffaut’s soft heart and Charles Aznavour’s masterful sang-froid.o The circular story is still there, faithfully filmed from the novel down to small detail, but it seems somehow more human, as if it isn’t fate so much as the characters themselves that leads them to their predestined ends.

   Aznavour dominates the film, but along the way there are plenty of pauses for the bit players to get out and stretch their legs a bit –- stock characters in Goodis novels and Truffaut films simply refuse to behave like stock characters -– so when Charlie (Aznavour) and Lena (Marie Dubois) are kidnapped by gangsters early on, their captors end up swapping jokes with them. And later on, a thuggish bartender muses aloud about his bad luck with women as he’s trying to choke Charlie to death.

   The point, if there is one (it’s never quite safe to go looking for a moral lesson in Truffaut films or Goodis novels) may be that no one is really ordinary: not in pulp novels, B-movies or what we call Real Life; skid-row bums might be heroes, goons can feel tenderness, and a spear-carrier in the back row of Aida may actually be singing an aria, if we listen closely.

       “Charlie old buddy – may I be familiar? – Charlie old buddy, I’m going to kill you.”