DAVID GOODIS – Down There. Gold Medal #623, paperback original, January 1956. Black Lizard, paperback, 1987. Included in Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, hardcover, Library of America, 1997.

SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER. France, 1960, released as Tirez sur le pianiste. Astor Pictures Corporation, US, 1962. Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Nicole Berger, Michèle Mercier. Based on the novel Down There by David Goodis. Director: François Truffaut.

   In substance, Down There is pretty typical Gold Medal stuff, what with fistfights, 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 again….

   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 Gallic wit. 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.

   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 (Charles 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 spearcarrier in the back row of Aida may actually be singing an aria, if we listen closely.

— Reprinted from The Hound of Dr. Johnson #42, January 2006.