Francois Truffaut’s 1960 comic-noir offering both defies and fulfills genre expectations. The contrasts are everywhere. Often funny, its tragic undertone is never far from the surface. Amorous escapades and freewheeling music buttress the tension felt as the thin plot rolls along. Irony inhabits a reference to peace sought by the US in John Wayne’s Torpedoes in Alaska. A married bar owner masks his continual pursuit of a young employee in painting himself as unlucky with women. Not only do these contrasts provide interesting and complex characters for Truffaut to investigate, but they also become the points at which we encounter meaning. It is in these contrasts that questions are raised about whom these characters really are, why they do what they do, and how they conceive of life.
The opening sequence offers several such moments. Immediately after the credit sequence, which features a static shot of the insides of a piano as Charlie presumably plays a little pop ditty repeated throughout the film, we see a man (whom we later learn is Charlie’s brother) running through the streets, being chased by a car. The sequence is edited briskly in stark contrast with the credit sequence, as Chico runs up and down streets, in and out of shadows. It ends abruptly when, out of breath and energy, he runs into a lamppost and falls to the ground. The opening static shot evokes a kind of playfulness (through the tune) in the midst of an overall stillness (through the piano). The motion is controlled, yet suggests a certain kind of beauty. The chase sequence, on the other hand, is deadly serious in its intensity, full of motion, and completely out of control. There’s anxiety to Chico’s life as he makes his break. Thus we find here a contrast between controlled reserve and wild desperation, one that arises within Charlie himself often through the film.
The chase scene is immediately followed and contrasted in a number of ways by a discussion between Chico and the stranger who helped him up. While the earlier scene was harried through its extensive use of cutting, this one employs a long tracking shot of the two men as they walk down the street. Now Chico has caught his breath, though the focus here is primarily on the stranger who speaks rather eloquently about his lengthy marriage (he’s on his way home with flowers for his wife). The stranger exudes stability, having fought through some initial doubts about his relationship. While we know little about Chico at this point, he responds favorably to this man’s conversation, at the very least respecting his commitment and showing warmth to this man who helped him up. There’s a sense in which this scene serves as a kind of third way between the first two, offering stability, rather than precise control or desperation. It also sits as an ideal to look back upon as Charlie’s story progresses (most notably as a companion to the flashback sequence with Charlie’s wife).
Once they part, Chico makes his way to his brother Charlie’s place of work. While Chico appears warm, albeit desperate and helpless, Charlie immediately strikes the viewer as cool and aloof towards his brother. Thus, while we, at least briefly, side with Chico, we also realize that as the titular character, Charlie at the very least requires our full attention. The impression of these two is quickly complicated by Chico’s carrying on in the bar while Charlie carries himself with a certain quiet confidence that results in him helping his brother to escape. Further, our intro to Chico is through his scared and tense facial expressions throughout the chase sequence, while our intro to Charlie is simply through his music, without getting to see him. This serves to heighten the contrast between them in this first meeting, where Chico initially appears to be the more likable of the two. It also causes us to be more removed from Charlie at the outset, allowing Truffaut to slowly build this character throughout the film.
Then there’s the contrast within Charlie’s character, which is central to the film. Who is this man? What drives him? What is he all about? Our very first moment with him has Chico calling him Edouard, and he demanding to be called Charlie (a point that is later explained by a flashback to his past). This inner contrast continues throughout the film, not only through his dual identities, but also through his action or lack thereof. In the first bar scene with his brother, he doesn’t want to get involved in Chico’s troubles, but then his assistance ends up being the sole reason his brother gets away. His timidity is apparent to everyone, yet he’s found to be rather aggressive in the bedroom.
All of these contrasts serve to set us off balance regarding the action and the characters, Edouard in particular. What will they do? What will happen next? Truffaut uses the device to keep us guessing throughout, never tipping his hand. And even in the film’s conclusion, another static shot, this time of Charlie rather than the piano (though the song is the same), we are left with more questions than answers. Has he retreated into his timidity, or does he sit at his piano waiting for another opportunity to engage and truly live life? This is the final contrasting question, one that makes us unsure about the future of this character. But more profoundly, one that calls us to the same question. We too, like Charlie, have experienced successes and tragedies, good and evil, hope and despair. In the end, we go back to the mundane of life and are faced with the daily decision to retreat or engage.