L’Histoire d’ Adele H 1975
Tirez sur le pianiste 1960
Today I have realised there is a debilitating flaw to my plan to watch these 150-200 great films – me.
I’m not happy to just watch the two or three great ones, I also want to watch another two or three to give me a broader context for understanding the director and his work. Last week I did a double-feature one afternoon and saw The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules et Jim (1962). That was a blast. It was extraordinary being able to take the opportunity to watch the two most highly regarded Truffaut films back to back. Now this double feature.
But, I had access through my library to Le Dernier Metro (1980), Stolen Kisses (1968), Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and The Story of Adele H (1975), so I borrowed them, and watched the first two on consecutive nights, and decided I’d do another double-bunger, this time of Adele H and Shoot. What an extraordinary treat. Both were brilliant in their own peculiar ways. Shoot was his second feature film, but in its entirety, it felt like I was seeing a director’s debut film.
In film, I’ve been very aware of the first films of directors, or the first films where they had enough money to take a decent stab at it, being (almost) full of dozens of great ideas. The first two that come to me, straight off the top of my head, are Citizen Kane and Blood Simple. Citizen Kane by Orson Welles, on whatever scale you rate it (IMDB: 8. 4, 325,018), is a Top 100 film. By contrast Blood Simple isn’t mentioned much when I read anything about the Coen Brothers’ career (IMDB: 7. 7, 72,513). Both films blew me away. One for an overwhelming canvas upon which were painted the most beautiful images and music, mixed amongst a story of great success and great failure (politically, artistically and emotionally). On a much smaller scale, Blood Simple, embellished on the A-grade and B-grade themes of many favourite films of mine to do with money-motivated crime – often through sexual manipulation. Whether it’s Sidomark, Raoul Walsh, Jacques Tourneur, John Sturges or Detour, High Sierra, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, these are the great film-noir movies. When Kasdan made his homage to the genre in Body Heat, that was an exciting day in my life in 1981. When the Coens did it in 1984 with Blood Simple, that was an even more thrilling night of my life. They took the genre and made clever twists in the plotting and added a lot of Hitchcockian stylistic and visual touches. In the 1980s a few films were trying to make a present-day film-noir thriller, which incorporated a life-time of favourite visual memories. Wherever you turned in the suspense-thriller-horror genres there between three and eight Hitchcock fingerprints on the celluloid – in addition to the two bloody thumbprints.
And then along came Francois Truffaut, 25 years before that. He’d been watching a dozen films a week since he was a teenager, seeming many of them multiple times, and then writing about them as a film critic, as a young adult. When he turned 27, it was only four months before the release of The 400 Blows. Sixteen months later, Tirez sur le pianiste was released. Two years later, Jules et Jim was released, when he was 29 (a month before he turned 30).
400 Blows was the most successful film by Truffaut at the Box Office in its initial theatrical release. It appears it gave him the confidence to throw a lot of the things he loved about how films look and feel and unfold, into his second film. There’s nothing like making one of the top ten most successful film that year in France, or one of the fifty most successful films in French cinema history, or even the most successful film of all time (Spielberg with “Jaws“) to give you the confidence to follow your heart.
After 400 Blows Truffaut had a lot more money to finance his next few films. I have no figures to support this argument, but a lot conjecture holds that Truffaut’s father-in-law supplied the budget for 400 Blows. If that’s true, and he formed his own company, and he then paid his father-in-law back, that leaves a lot of francs for Truffaut to play with.
After Universal’s success with “Jaws“, Spielberg didn’t get rich to the point that Lucas did with Star Wars or Coppola with The Godfather. But, Columbia gave Spielberg a much bigger budget for CE3K, which gave him a better chance to fail than most people get. I don’t know whether Spielberg had an outline or a draft of that script in the second draw down in his desk, but CE3K was a film that went where no one had ever been before. And even though it didn’t eclipse Jaws, it made millions and recouped enough for Columbia to be content that they hadn’t suffered a loss given their initial – ever rising – investment.
To put in in perspective, in 1959, Le Jument verte sold 5,272,066 tickets, Le Bossu sold 5,826,584 and La Vache et le Prisonnier sold 8,844,199 and in 1971 Last Tango in Paris sold 5,150,995 (the 100th highest-grossing French film ever screened in France) and A Clockwork Orange sold 7,602,396. So The 400 Blows in 1959 with 4,166,000 tickets sold was very popular. 71 films in the Top 100 were made after The 400 Blows. The 100th was Last Tango at 5,150,995. The 400 Blows did 4,166,149. This may seem to be an irrelevant, arbitrary piece of factual information I am after, but it is something I’m trying to nail down for a reason.
How big a hit The 400 Blows was that year, or in the history of French cinema goes to Truffaut’s mindset when he was embarking on his second film. I think it emboldened him to make a very personal film within the structure of a widely accepted, and very successful, genre.
Shoot did a quarter of the business that 400 Blows did and Jules et Jim did forty percent of the business. Reports (which I have read somewhere) indicate that Truffaut was never as game to be experimental again. Although the film wasn’t a complete failure financially, doing better than eleven of the next twenty-two films he directed, it made a mark on the 28-year-old Truffaut.
In 2015, if we look back at box office figures and Last Tango sold 5. 1 million tickets in 1971 (100th Biggest Gross) and in 1959 La Jument verte sold 5,272,066 (93rd Biggest Gross) and 71 films were made after 1960, then it is a reasonable guess that 400 Blows was in the Top 100 French films in 1959. And unless there were 70 films that had ticket sales of 4,170,000 to 5,272,066 then 400 Blows is within the Top 100. Depending on the box office of other films before 1960, which scored more than 4,1699,000, this was the 50th or 60th biggest grossing French film ever – in France.
In 1962 War of the Buttons sold 9,936,391. That gives an indication of the audience (or possibilities of repeat viewers).
If you’ve directed The Sixth Sense as your first film, it’s all downhill from there. That would be an interesting statistic to analyse. What is the highest grossing (massive-hit) for a first film (or 2nd or 3rd feature film) by all directors and did anyone ever surpass it?
Spielberg did, several times. So did Cameron. So did Lucas.
In the French film world Luc Besson probably did. He had hits with The Fifth Element, The Big Blue, Le Professional and topped them. For Truffaut, or anyone, that is a hard pill to swallow.
Especially when you’re relying on the success of your first few ventures to fund the next projects.
Like so many Hitchcock films there’s someone on the run. In many of his films they are physically running to get away from whoever is chasing them (North by Northwest, The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, The Lady Vanishes). Sometimes they are on the run, but they’re moving slower (Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, The Trouble with Harry). Sometimes, it is in slow motion and they don’t even realise that they’re being chased (Suspicion, Rebecca, Notorious).
Shoot the piano player [Tirez sur le pianiste]
If your favourite American film director is the British film director Alfred Hitchcock, then what better way to pay homage to him than to have someone on the run. So begins Shoot the Piano Player with a man running. He runs into a pole, falls down, is dazed and confused. A stranger wakes him from his dazed state, helps him to his feet and then he has a bizarre conversation with this man about when this bloke fell in love with his wife. The discussion is about marriage and how difficult it is. It’s a very French thing, I think. It’s not a typically American conversation between characters in a film (before Robert Altman or Quentin Tarantino). Only when they had the newborn the man says did he fall in love with his wife.
The man on the run goes to his brother for help. He’s a piano player in a dive. The scenes are rich in crazy dialogue which is unlike Hitchcock. The scenes are French, with dancing and grooving. Hoodlums come looking for the brother and the pianist trips them up so his brother can flee.
A waitress, Lena, asks Charlie for money. He gives it. Then he gives money to a waitress who needs it. There’s a mixture of Sam Spade and GG narration. While Charlie is narrating about what he wants to do, the girl has split, and he’s walking alone. He’s back at home with Clarissa, a neighbour, buxom and uninhibited. There’s a bit of giggling and false resistance but the sex ensues.
The next day, Charlie is taken by the heavies. He’s offered money for his brother, but he doesn’t need the money. He refuses. Lena is seen on the street and captured and put in the car as well.
The shakedown and the chase continues. Charlie is like Cary Grant’s (Roger Thornhill) character in North by Northwest. He’s caught up in a series of events which rain down on him out of the blue. He has no say in the beginning, and things just keep unfolding.