The 39 Steps and Shoot the Piano Player Blow Up Conventions of the Comic Thriller

Hitchcock and Truffaut's men on the run, twenty years apart

Wreathed in Gitane smoke and heroic self-pity, the short, heartbroken hero is something like Woody Allen's ego ideal—a genius performer who shares his endearingly self-questioning thoughts with the audience, wears a trench coat with aplomb, and, when necessary, can escalate from morose catatonia to murderous rage. Ambience rules. Charlie works in the most cheerful of dives, sleeps with the friendliest (and dishiest) of whores, is loved by the sweetest of waitresses (Marie Dubois, totally cool in her matching trench coat), lives with the cutest of kid brothers, and suffers the stupidest of older ones. Even the bad guys are droll.

Forty-eight years later, Shoot the Piano Player retains an abundance of exciting (and excited) filmmaking—the clever use of contrapuntal sound, the hilarious cutaway showing the drastic result of someone's solemn oath, the still-fresh poetry of an extended, mortally wounded death slide down a snowy hill. The mood is in constant flux, and the garrulous characters surrounding taciturn Charlie provide plenty of unexpected digressions.

No way to treat a lady: Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps
Gaumont Pictures
No way to treat a lady: Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps


The 39 Steps
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
September 5 through 11, BAMCinématek
Shoot the Piano Player
Directed by François Truffaut
September 5 through 11, Film Forum

Shoot the Piano Player not only reconfigured the Hitchcock slapstick romantic thriller but also popularized a number of the innovations—arcane references, shock editing, narrative asides—tossed off by Jean-Luc Godard in the original nouvelle vague neo-realist noir fairy tale, Breathless (a movie for which Truffaut supplied the premise). Unlike that of his onetime pal, however, Truffaut's form of self-reflection is ultimately a way of playing the audience. The difference between his movie and Breathless is the difference between talent and genius.

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