Chico (Albert Rémy) is on the run from gangsters after a heist where he escaped with most of the haul, but he manages to give them the slip when he ducks down a side street and smacks straight into a lamppost. A passerby carrying a bunch of flowers stops and revives him, and they get to talking as they continue along their way through the darkened Paris streets, with the passerby telling Chico of his wife, and how he never really loved her until she had their first child. They go their separate ways, and Chico decides the safest place to go would be to track down his brother, Charlie (Charles Aznavour) - but he has fallen on hard times...
After François Truffaut broke onto the movie scene with The Four Hundred Blows, great things were expected of him, and the anticipation for the second film from one of the leading lights of the French New Wave was considerable. And yet, when it arrived, there were many put off by its shifting tone, some would say lurching mood from comedy to tragedy often in the space of one scene, and doubts were cast over whether Truffaut was living up to his promise. He fully admitted that Shoot the Piano Player, or Tirez sur le Pianiste as it was originally, was intended to pack in as many diverse scenes as possible, part homage to the variety of films he loved, and part an exercise in making them a cohesive whole.
However, just as there were those left disappointed, there were a band of cultists that saw Truffaut's work here as entirely successful, and even preferred it to his debut. After all, it's easier to make a film about childhood that tugs at the heartstrings than to face the turmoil of adulthood the way Charlie goes through it here. He is a self-confessed shy man, and with Aznavour using his morose features to his role's advantage he could be described as a loser, but as we go along we find out why he is so down. It's not simply that he is timid, it's that every time he tries to make a connection, chiefly romantic, something - call it fate, call it his lacking personality, call it the flaws of other people - conspires against him.
Charlie used to be a concert pianist, and a successful one at that, but for some reason which we find out later he gave it all up and now lives a less sainted life as a musician in a bar, tickling the ivories for a group of ungrateful patrons who clumsily dance the night away. When Chico appears, he acts as a catalyst: at first we think Charlie will be snapped out of his mind in neutral lifestyle, but later we realise he is headed for heartbreak in a history repeating fashion. One of the waitresses at the bar, Léna (Marie Dubois), wants to get to know him, but he still has that shyness to overcome and when they walk home that night, he can barely bring himself to talk to her. But don't think he is a complete social embarrassment, as when he gets back to his apartment alone he does jump into bed with his shapely neighbour (Michèle Mercier).
Yet that's part of the way that light and shade co-exist in this film, leaving you wondering which will win out. Not that it's much of a surprise how Charlie is treated by the end, after we see that the brightness offered by the traditional Hollywood movies Truffaut pays tribute to as well as sending up is no match for the random cruelties of real life. Here romance does not end happily ever after, violence is not exciting (indeed, it's throroughly depressing), and nobody is left feeling better. Something about Aznavour's dogged determination to make Charlie able to cope with his drawbacks best he can, even when the odds are overwhelming, is curiously moving, and his placing of women on a pedestal only for others to knock them off it speaks of a thwarted tenderness that the piano player is as much responsible for as any of the other men in the film. But we sympathise with Charlie's failings, and respond to this bittersweet film that touchingly allows the bitter to overtake the sweet. Music by Georges Delerue.