The Idiot

idiot 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1951

Studio: Shochiku Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Eijiro Hisaita, based on the story by Fryodor Dostoevsky

Cast: Masayuki Mori, Toshiro Mifune, Setsuko Hara, Yoshiko Kuga, Takashi Shimura

Cinematographer: Toshio Ubukata

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

If “Rashomon” comes with a lot of baggage, then “The Idiot” is that mysterious passenger who slips into the coach mostly unseen. It’s wedged in between the movie that made Kurosawa’s career in “Rashomon” and would be followed up by two of the greatest movies of all time: “Ikiru” and “Seven Samurai.” And yet, like “Scandal,” it’s fallen through the cracks of history. Most of the critical analysis of the movie only compares it to the movies that surround it (Michael Koresky’s Criterion essay on the film talks almost as much about “Rashomon” as it does “The Idiot”), or talks more about what the film could have been. I’ll talk about that first to get it out of the way, because I’m more interested in talking about the actual guts and bones of the movie itself.

Kurosawa originally envisioned “The Idiot” as two films, and the runtime of both halves was well over four hours. This was before “Rashomon” hit the stratosphere and the co-writer/director did not have the power he would soon yield, so when a test screening did not go well, executives at Shochiku Studios welded the two halves into a single film and began chopping. I could not find out how much, if any, control Kurosawa had over the final cut, which is two-hours-and-forty-five minutes in length. The second half seems (mostly) intact, but the first half is obviously chopped to bits, with intertitles explaining a LOT of character relationships, motivations and actions. There is even one especially annoying title card that explains what Fryodor Dostoevsky meant when he was writing the original source novel… as opposed to just letting the movie speak for itself. Legend also says that years later when Kurosawa made another movie for the studio he searched for days in their archives to find the missing footage – and couldn’t.

idiot 2So yes, “The Idiot” is a fragmented mess at the beginning. But I can only analyze what actually made it to screen, and that’s what I’m going to do. 95% of the other critical analysis frames anything written as “It’s Kurosawa’s destroyed masterpiece!” or something similar. But did it really have the makings of a masterpiece? I don’t want to write about what the movie isn’t… I want to talk about what the movie is.

The idiot of the title’s real name is the innocent Kameda (Masayuki Mori), and we open with him just back from the war after almost being shot to death. He meets Akama (Toshiro Mifune), a rich and rogue-ish figure and strikes up a friendship with him. They both end up falling in love with Taeko (Setsuko Hara), a kept woman just escaping her bounds. She doesn’t want to sully Kameda’s innocence, but isn’t really in love with Akama either, so the pendulum swings back and forth. At some point Kameda begins to court a woman named Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), but all Ayako does is seem to yell at him about either being an idiot or loving Taeko.

idiot 3Just writing that out, I’m thinking to myself “Gosh, that’s not a lot of plot for an almost three hour movie,” and I can’t imagine what else Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Eijiro Hisaita threw into the over four hour version. The fragmented opening really makes it difficult to engage with the story until about half an hour in… it took me two or three times to make it past that point anyway. And once you get what’s going on, you find yourself rewinding to watch the opening again to make sure you understand everything.

Cards on the table, even though I have read a few of Dostoevsky’s texts, I have not read the novel upon which “The Idiot” is based. Dostoevsky strikes me as an almost impossible author to adapt, though that hasn’t stopped a ton of filmmakers trying…the old chestnut “Crime and Punishment” in particular. His work is just so internal – so much to do with the inner workings of people’s minds and why they make the choices they make. So a large percentage of “The Idiot” is people talking about the way they feel over and over. How I feel, how you feel, how I feel about the way you feel, and one hell of a lot of talking about how Taeko must feel and why she’s acting like an insane person when making any decisions. To highlight the obsessions of these characters, Kurosawa and Hisaita embrace melodrama.

Let me state here that melodrama doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even though critics have adopted the word as such over the past two decades. “Gone With the Wind” is melodrama. “Titanic” is melodrama. The best sequences in “The Idiot” are pure melodrama, particularly one from the first half where Taeko is essentially being bid upon at her birthday party. Will she remain a kept woman? Over a dozen partygoers watch and follow her every word and movement, and the character makes such a strong impression that it almost (but not quite) makes up for the countless sequences where she isn’t around but other characters talk about her motivations. When Kameda knocks over an expensive vase and people are calling him an idiot, Taeko reminds them that the vases are hers and simply drops the second one. Pretty badass. The sequence climaxes brilliantly, with Taeko taking a bag of a million yen and tossing it in the fire, daring one of her suitors to pull it out while the entire party watches the money burn. So awesome.

Hara gives the best performance in the movie, and by far the best female performance in a Kurosawa film to date. There’s something so electric about her face here… it’s so organic that you really feel her character figuring out things and making decisions right then and there, however crazy they may be. They don’t seem crazy when she is onscreen because Hara is so beautiful, seductive and enigmatic that she could sell the audience on anything. It’s only after she’s gone and the other characters are talking about her that the viewer begins to think “Hey, that doesn’t quite make sense! Like at all!” I’m happy she had a fruitful career with Ozu after this, but just wish she would have made a few more movies with Kurosawa.

Mori is also very good as Kameda, in that you sympathize with him and at the same time kinda want to strangle him. He holds his hands to his jacket collar about 30% too much, though. Mifune is perfectly cast as Akama, and like Mori has a tightrope to walk. Mifune has to be dangerous, but also must allow his friendship with Mori’s character to seem grounded and real… all without any character motivation track laid aside from a lengthy intertitle. That he pulls it off is impressive… that he pulls it off well is most impressive.

Kurosawa and his cinematographer Toshio Ubukata shoot the film for the most part very simply. The big set pieces work because a big deal isn’t made of them…put the camera on the actors and let them do their thing. It’s a marked difference in how Kurosawa approached “Rashomon” and would soon handle “Seven Samurai,” but I feel like Kurosawa was so slavish to “The Idiot” novel that he was intent on letting Dostoevsky’s work be the star, not him. The sets are impressive, as are the frigid outdoor locations chosen because Kurosawa obviously wanted the entire affair to seem Russian without putting it in Russia.

I feel like I’m writing a lot of great things about “The Idiot”… and yet in the end I didn’t like it very much. The parts all work well, but taken as a whole it’s a lopsided emotional mess that makes its point but then can’t help but underlining it for an extra 45 minutes. Most of Kurosawa’s later work is long but rarely feels that way – he gives each film just enough runtime to tell the story he needs to tell and then exits stage left. If it’s three hours, that’s fine. Here I get the impression that “The Idiot” could have made a crackerjack 90 minute movie where Taeko was involved much more than she is in the second half. That way we see the emotions of the main characters instead of hearing about it repeatedly.

If this odyssey has taught me anything about Kurosawa, it’s that the more he adopts a story to his personal style (even if it’s an adaptation), the more successful it can be. He was trying to tell “Stray Dog” in the style of an author and failed, but the movie ended up amazing because it was really Kurosawa’s voice in the void. In trying to be so true to Dostoevsky, he loses himself and why he’s so singular as a storyteller.

Notes:

-Not crazy about the music of Fumio Hayasaka here. It’s too insistent… to intent on telling you how you should be feeling about any given scene, and up way too high in the mix.

– Takashi Shimura has a small, thankless role here but absolutely kills it. His confession that Kameda owns a farm is instilled with so much more emotion than it should possibly have. What a great actor.

Murder is My Beat

murder is my beat 1The Noir Odyssey

Writer: Aubrey Wisberg

Based on a story by Wisberg & Martin Field

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Cinematographer: Harold E. Wellman

Music: Albert Glasser

Cast: Paul Langton, Barbara Payton, Robert Shayne, Selena Royle

Release: February 27, 1955

Studio: Allied Artists Pictures (Monogram)

Percent Noir: 70%

“Murder is My Beat” feels like the dying breath of the classic era of film noir. Everything in the movie feels like an afterthought, and even though it only clocks in at an hour fifteen, it feels endless.

1955 was the last year of the “classic noir” era, with 1956’s half noir/half sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” metaphorically representing the pivot point where paranoid science fiction would replace paranoid crime dramas. Director Edgar G. Ulmer had already directed his first sci-fi film, the unfortunate “The Man From Planet X,” and after years of providing the smallest budget films with the atmosphere of A-pictures, here he can’t even be bothered to stage a shadow properly. The Poverty Row studios that conjured up some of the best and worst films noir were dying out, with Monogram changing its name to Allied Artists Pictures and producing a weird mix of big-budget A-pictures like “Friendly Persuasion” & “Love in the Afternoon” and their usual low-budget quickies. Former blonde bombshell Barbara Payton, in her last film role, apparently performs the entire thing having just woken up from a nap, without an ounce of the power of her previous work. The times, they were a’changin’, and “Murder is My Beat” served as proof that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.

A cop named Patrick (Paul Langton) has gone off the reservation and is found in a cheap-o motel by his friend/co-worker Rawley (Robert Shayne). Patrick starts explaining what happened, and we flash back to a murder he was investigating where a man named Fred Dean was hit with a blunt instrument then dropped into a fire in such a way that his face and hands are entirely charred. Any reader of at least one “Nancy Drew” mystery already knows Dean isn’t really Dean, but it takes the other characters about 30 minutes of screen time to catch on. Also, I’m not sure why Patrick needs to re-tell Rawley this part of the story, since Rawley was actively helping him at the time, but whatever.

murder is my beat 3The prime suspect is a woman named Eden Lane, and the best sequence in the film is Patrick tracking her up north when a blizzard happens. Instead of waiting and possibly losing the lead, Patrick abandons his car and treks up a mountain in the middle of a snowstorm to get to her cabin. Let me repeat that: the dude walks up a mountain. In a snowstorm. Awesomeness. When he finally gets to her cabin, Ulmer unleashes his one indelible visual – the cabin is almost entirely buried in the snow except its chimney.

Patrick shows himself inside and comes face to face with Eden, played by Payton. Her appearance has been drummed up quite a bit by almost everyone in the movie commenting on her beauty. The script, by producer Aubrey Wisberg, goes out of its way to make Eden seem irresistible, with an old woman describing her thusly: “(She) wore tight clothes. Indecent the way it showed her shape.” Then Patrick says she’s got “a face that would stand out in heaven.” Perhaps Wisberg did this at the last minute, after realizing that Payton just wasn’t delivering the electricity that was needed.

Eden says she clunked Dean on the head, but didn’t think she killed him. She allows herself to be taken back, where she is convicted for murder. Patrick puts her on a train to take her to prison upstate and, in the middle of the ride, Eden gasps – she’s certain she saw Dean at the train depot for a fraction of a second… and he’s alive! It’s here that the movie, which was passable previously, goes completely off the rails (this was not a train pun).

Does Patrick do something logical like stop the train and rush back to the depot with Eden to investigate? Or take Eden to prison, get a sketch of Dean and then return to the town to investigate? Hell no. Patrick grabs Eden and they jump off the moving train. Patrick says he’ll investigate for a week to try and find Dean, and if he finds nothing, he’ll take Eden to prison. So he’s committing career suicide because a convicted murderer said she thought she saw the man she admits to hitting over the head alive. Yep. Part of the reason this is so hard to swallow is because Payton really doesn’t sell the scene where she claims to see Dean (Ulmer and his editor wisely intercut the scene with the squeal of the train wheels to up the tension of the moment), but even if it were the best actress in the world the moment would still feel farfetched.

murder is my beat 2The second and third act are a very convoluted series of investigation scenes. Patrick does most of the footwork at first, with Eden (who has a miraculous number of new outfits materialize out of nowhere) staying in the hotel room. Ostensibly this is because Eden is a wanted felon, but the cops are looking out for Patrick too, so why not have the woman who can identify Dean along for the investigation? Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter because suddenly Eden disappears, abandoning Patrick to turn herself into the authorities (?!?) for literally no reason whatsoever. It’s here that Rawley re-enters the film and takes over as the sidekick, helping Patrick put the final pieces together.

This is weird, and not just from a storytelling stand-point. Payton, the lynchpin to the entire premise, disappears from the film right up until the final epilogue scene, where she barely talks. It makes me wonder if it was a production problem. Look, Payton obviously had many, many personal demons and this movie was made when she was on her way down. Perhaps the producer had to write her out of the film because the actress was having issues? Because otherwise I can’t fathom a reason for the story to take this odd left turn. Let me be clear, Payton doesn’t look drunk or on drugs in any of her scenes, but it’s not a good performance – she’s sleepwalking at best. And even though it makes no sense, at least Rawley is a good enough foil for Patrick, giving the scenes some life.

It all comes to an all-too-obvious climax aboard a moving train where one of the killers hurls herself off the moving train in front of another. And, despite the movie being produced twelve years after Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” the “effects” look way worse, with lighting reflecting off the rear-projection screen and a bit of the actress’ clothes bouncing back into frame after she drops. Whoops.

This was cinematographer Harold E. Wellman’s first production, and it seems amateur in every way. Not a single scene besides the aforementioned blizzard summons up even a bit of atmosphere or interest, and Ulmer’s lackluster framing doesn’t help matters. Ulmer was obviously capable of greatness, but I get no sense of that here, and I probably won’t remember a frame of it tomorrow. What a pity.

Score: *

The Sixth Sense

sixthAFI Top 100 Ranking: 89

Release: August 6, 1999

Writer/Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Star: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette

Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto

Music: James Newton Howard

Company: Buena Vista Pictures

Oh, what I would give to go back and watch “The Sixth Sense” for the first time again. I can only imagine the astonishment of a viewer discovering the film, knowing absolutely nothing about the premise or the now-infamous twist. I went to the movie opening weekend and can still remember the gasps and “Holy Shits” being screamed in the theatre during the closing minutes of the movie – some of them coming from me.

Reexamining the film today, it’s shocking to see how little the twist actually matters to the story itself. If the movie would have faded to black after Haley Joel Osment’s character Cole confesses to his mother (Toni Collette) that he can see dead people and has a message for her from her own mother, “The Sixth Sense” would still be one of the best thrillers of all time. But those final moments make the movie transcendent.

sixth 2Setting the twist aside, the movie works beautifully as both a drama and a supernatural thriller, and of course those two components are closely connected. Hell, we don’t know ghosts are involved until 45 minutes into the film. Until then, Shyamalan takes great pain to create a complete world for Osment and Collette to inhabit and, just as interestingly, a void of a world for Bruce Willis’ child therapist Malcolm. Shyamalan paints in all the edges. At first, Osment just seems like an odd, troubled child, and (almost) everything supernatural that happens around him could easily be explained away. Everything except several passages of Latin that he has memorized and that he somehow knows that his teacher was tortured for his stutter in his youth.

Even more important than Cole’s relationship to Malcolm is Cole’s relationship with his mother Lynn. There’s a moment early in the movie that tells us everything about those characters and how they relate to one another. Cole walks in from school, and Lynn kneels in front of him, smiles and tells him how she won the lottery, quit her jobs (yes, plural) and swam in the fountain. Cole grins and tells his mother how he was picked first for kickball, made the winning play and was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates. Both are lying, of course, but something about the lies gives both characters the strength to go on. There’s a moment later in the movie, just as beautiful, when Lynn races across the parking lot of a local Acme while pushing her son, who puts his hands up as if he on a rollercoaster. Both of their lives are trainwrecks, but they will always be there for one another, and that element informs everything Cole does in the movie.

When the supernatural is finally introduced after a shattering, now much-parodied, scene of Osment admitting that he sees dead people, the movie doesn’t change its tone or pacing. Yes, we can now see the ghosts Osment has been speaking of, but we are more interested in how Willis’ character can help Osment with his gift/curse. Shyamalan uses the ghosts as a nice way to keep viewers alert with several nice boo-scares, though. My favorite is when Osment is in a hallway and, out of nowhere, a teenage boy walks through the end of the hallway into the library. It’s a scare he would closely repeat in “Signs,” but works better here. There is gore, but it’s never gratuitous. In fact, the most stomach-churning moment doesn’t even involve ghosts, but when we watch a video tape of a Mother poisoning her daughter’s soup with Pine-Sol.

The scenes between Willis and his wife are the only time the film cracks a bit. Once you know Willis is dead and haunting his wife (Olivia Williams), you can’t help but pay attention to everything in the scene except Willis and how he interacts with his environment. Even though I have seem the movie several times before and know that it doesn’t cheat, that didn’t stop me from missing whole passages of dialogue because I was seeing whether or not Bruce Willis moved a chair when he sat down. Shyamalan goes to such great lengths to make it flawless that he inserts off-screen giggling behind Willis on the soundtrack in the half-second Williams (probably accidentally) looks at her husband in a crowded restaurant.

That can’t be helped. Shyamalan’s script is razor sharp throughout, ensuring that we understand that Cole is a gifted child who is much smarter than older children his age, but never letting us forget that he is, in fact, a kid. This is underlined in a scene where Willis loses his senses for a moment in front of Osment, and Osment responds by saying “You said the ‘s’ word.” Looking at it as a whole, and seeing just how much trouble Shyamalan went through not only to hide his secrets but also make it seem like he had no secrets to hide, and you have something very special. Shyamalan always seems to write best when he focuses on smaller casts. Between this film, “Unbreakable” and “Signs” he has made three masterpieces, and all of them have very small casts, and his recent back-to-basics work with the excellent “The Visit” and “Split” support this.

As a visual director, Shyamalan is unmatched. He keeps showing us unexpected angles and new ways to approach even the most normal scene. “The Sixth Sense” looks and feels like one of producer Val Lewton’s best horror efforts from the ‘40s, with a sense of tension palpable throughout and the more chilling sights just out of view. Sure, he uses red a little (okay, a lot) too much in the film for added impact, but that is forgivable.

sixth 3The acting throughout is nothing short of amazing. Osment’s face seems to hold all the pain of a man three times his age, and Willis is one of those actors who can hold his own with a child actor. Collette was the standout for me here. I remember the other two performances as being great, but Collette manages to create a fully-understandable, completely relatable three-dimensional character in (comparatively) little screen time.

And then there’s that ending. As I said earlier, the film would still be a classic without the twist, but the dimension that it adds to what we’ve seen before is palpable. Did Cole know that Malcolm was a ghost? If so, why did he talk to him? Does that matter? And Shyamalan takes his time after the revelation to give not only Malcolm the peace the character deserves, but also his long-suffering wife. After “The Sixth Sense,” almost every thriller or supernatural drama has had some sort of surprise, some to great effect (“The Others”, Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable”) and others notsomuch (everything else). “The Sixth Sense” is still the best of the bunch and remains one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen, mostly because it knows that the best way to take our breath away is make us care about the characters we are about to see go through hell.

My Score (out of 5): *****

Rashomon

rashomon 1The Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1950

Studio: Daiei Film Co. Ltd.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto, based on the story by Ryunosuke Akutagaa

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Machiko Kyo, Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori

Cinematographer: Kazuo Miyagawa

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

Well, this is it. The big one.

“Rashomon” changed everything. It opened the United States to world cinema in a way that had never been seen before. It won an honorary Oscar. It made Kurosawa’s career – if there was no “Rashomon,” there probably wouldn’t be any “Seven Samurai,” “Red Beard” and certainly no Western co-funded films like “Ran” and “Kagemusha.” I cannot underscore enough just how important “Rashomon” is to Kurosawa’s career and to the history of cinema.

So you can see why it took me awhile to make peace with the fact that I just don’t like it that much.

By all accounts, I should love “Rashomon.” Kurosawa is right up there with Chaplin, Almodovar and Hitchcock among my favorite filmmakers, and without this movie, I might not know him at all (see above). I usually adore a story told through multiple perspectives – one of my all-time favorite novels is Agatha Christie’s iconic “Five Little Pigs.” And it’s the master being experimental and trying things no other director at the time would have dared. And yet, each of the five times I’ve sat down with this film, I hope that the spell it has cast on countless others will capture me as well… only to be left wanting. Don’t get me wrong, “Rashomon” is certainly a masterpiece – a great movie that broke boundaries cinema didn’t even know could be broken, but even though it’s a great movie, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good one.

And in a film so concerned with the definition of truth, I figured it was important to start this essay relating mine, though I know for a fact that it is vastly different from the next guy’s…

We open during a downpour in a group of ruins where a Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and a Priest (Minoru Chiaki) have taken shelter. Another Man (Kichijiro Ueda) joins them. The Woodcutter happened upon the stabbed body of a Samurai (Masayuki Mori) in the woods and, with the Priest, witnessed the court testimony of the three people involved with the murder. First we hear the story from a Bandit’s perspective (Toshiro Mifune), then from the slain Samurai’s Wife (Machiko Kyo), then from the Samurai himself through a Medium. Finally, the Woodcutter explains that he actually saw the murder and gives his side of the story. None of them agree, and in the end the Samurai, the Bandit and the Wife all end up taking credit for the murder. Oh, and at some point a baby becomes involved.

rashomon 2Now before I get to the many, many good things about “Rashomon,” let me first just throw out the main stumbling block that I cannot overcome – the acting. It’s out of control, with every actor going back and forth between non-acting (seriously, the entire opening of the film appears to be about people who have had too much ZZZquil) and way Way WAY over-the-top acting. There’s no in between – no moment where I thought to myself “Wow, he/she did a good job with that character moment.” It was only me shocked by one extreme or the other. In Robert Altman’s introduction to the film on the Criterion release, he waves off the acting, simply stating that it must have been the acting style of the time in Japan. As someone who has watched all of Kurosawa’s previous films, and quite a few pre-and-postwar Japanese movies, I can firmly state that it’s false. The character Shimura played in the previous Kurosawa film “Scandal” was a “big” character, and yet never came close to the cackling that Mifune or Kyo make on a regular basis. Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” essay on “Rashomon,” which is otherwise awesome, waves off the acting as well because “Kurosawa was not looking for realism.” He also writes that the acting actually works because “many of the sequences are, essentially, silent.” Um, no.

Looking further, we must notice that the acting is “over the top” in the flashbacks and utterly subdued in the “present” scenes. My guess is that Kurosawa was perhaps trying to underline the difference between the “reality” of the characters’ minds and the reality of the rainstorm. Maybe? But, even if that is the case, it does not work. The acting continually takes me out of the movie to the point where it often ceases to be enjoyable, and since “Rashomon” is unquestionably a movie of great subtlety and nuance, the acting sticks out even more like a sore thumb. Worse yet, since each of the three main players are portraying four different characterizations of the same character, it’s a huge missed opportunity.

The introduction to the entire conceit is terribly flawed as well. The Woodcutter states early that he just doesn’t understand what has occurred, but when the Man doesn’t show much interest, the Woodcutter and the Priest launch into these speeches that amp up the story we are about to see in such a way that it will never be able to live up to expectations. Here is some of the Priest’s dialogue: “I, for one, have seen hundreds of men dying like animals, but even I’ve never before heard anything as terrible as this. Horrible, it’s horrible! There’s never been anything, anything as terrible as this, never! It’s worse than fires, wars, epidemics, or bandits!” Really, Mr. Priest? I mean, really?

Once we launch into the court testimony, things do get very interesting – not just in that the characters disagree with one another but in the various ways that they do. When the Bandit tells his version of events, Kurosawa’s film breaks from the Bandit’s point-of-view only once: just before the Wife consents to sex with him. He could never have seen the Wife when she looks to the sun and is overcome with lust, but in his mind she must have done this because he could have never raped someone he “loves” so much. In the stories of the Wife, the Samurai and the Woodcutter, it’s obviously rape, but the most shattering moment of the assault comes from a line in the Samurai’s perspective. The husband looks at his Wife, shattered and still emotional from being sexually assaulted, and the husband states (through the medium) that she had never looked more beautiful. Even now, remembering that moment, I still shudder.

rashomon 3Also really ingenious is the way Kurosawa frames the first three testimonies, with the characters looking toward the camera when they are speaking. In other words, the audience is questioning these characters as “we” try to get to the bottom of what is going on.

It’s also fascinating to me how Kurosawa handles the Woodcutter’s perspective. We open on him stating that he does not understand and the only time we physically see him in flashback is watching him wander through the woods and coming upon the body. Then he states that he actually saw everything, which is contrary to what we saw in the flashbacks previously. Then again, how reliable are the flashbacks? Are they showcases what the characters actually believe happened, or simply a dramatization of what they are saying? Thanks to the nature of the film, we’ll never know, but depending on where you fall on that subject, the Woodcutter’s testimony becomes even more questionable. Note that, throughout his entire story, we never actually see him. We don’t see him happen upon the rape aftermath. We don’t see him follow them as they change positions for the battle. In fact, the point-of-view here is entirely omniscient, not personal, and the story appears more of a “greatest hits” of the earlier three stories more than an individual’s perspective of it. The Wife is comatose but also a femme fatale. The Bandit is cowardly but also a monster. You can see where I’m going with this – I don’t actually believe that the Woodcutter was there and made up the story himself as a way to make sense of everything that happened earlier in the day.

Of course there’s no way to prove it. My hypothesis has just as much merit as the next guy’s, completely right but at the same time completely wrong. Though I want to hold back too many “Citizen Kane” comparisons because I feel like they fit better with Kurosawa’s next film, they fit here too – the more you try to answer questions, the more questions you’ll find. I love “Citizen Kane” more than 99% of other films, but don’t have that same affection for “Rashomon.” Like the flashbacks themselves, on the surface it has everything I could want in this type of story, but the more you squint and the more you question, the less fulfilling it seems. Stephen King wrote a great novella called “The Colorado Kid” about a mystery with no possible answer, but the point for the main character was that you want to keep looking, hoping you’ll see something new and different. Despite my ambivalence to many aspects of “Rashomon,” I see myself continuing this strange dance with the film for years to come, hoping to find the point…not of the movie’s mystery but unlocking its appeal for myself. Maybe some day…

Notes:

-This is the first of Kurosawa’s masterpieces on which Roger Ebert devoted one of his “Great Movies” articles, and though I point out a disagreement with his writing above, I want to underline here that they are all incredible reading that gives so much insight into Kurosawa’s work. Be on the lookout for his writings on “Seven Samurai,” “Ikiru,” “Red Beard,” “Ran,” and “Yojimbo.” They are essential.

-The woman at the center of the story and her rape is fascinating to look at from a feminist perspective, particularly how the three men see her after the event as opposed to her own interpretation of what had happened to her and how it ultimately caused her to take her husband’s life.

-There are a couple of incredible tracking shots of the Woodcutter walking through the woods at the opening of the film where nothing happens but the viewer is still totally invested because of the beauty.

-There’s a little-spoken-of American remake of “Rashomon,” (unseen by me) called “The Outrage.” Paul Newman takes the role of the Bandit, Claire Bloom as the Wife and Laurence Harvey as the husband. The director was Martin Ritt, who also directed “Hud” and “Norma Rae” and it was adapted by Michael Kanin, who wrote the Hepburn classic “Woman of the Year” and also wrote two television adaptations of “Rashomon” before this film. Maybe it’s good?

Decoy

decoy 1Writer: Nedrick Young

Based on a story by Stanley Rubin

Director: Jack Bernhard

Cinematographer: L. William O’Connell

Music: Edward J. Kay

Cast: Jean Gillie, Robert Armstrong, Herbert Rudley, Edward Norris, Sheldon Leonard

Release: September 14, 1946

Studio: Monogram Pictures

Percent Noir: 100%

When I was about halfway through “Decoy,” and things were getting really insane, I began to wonder… if this had been the movie that was discovered by French cinephiles and then rediscovered by American cinephiles in the ‘70s, would “Decoy” have dethroned “Detour” as the ideal poverty row film noir? After all, since “Decoy” was “rediscovered,” it’s become a cult classic, rising in stature with every passing year. Both films wear their imperfections and barely-there production on their sleeves, and both represent the very best of what Poverty Row had to offer.

Both also tell the prototypical noir story, though “Decoy” is a little more — let’s use the word “eccentric” — in the telling. But there is one big hang-up that separates this film from most other comparable films noir: it’s told from the point of view of the femme fatale. Of course many films have the wicked woman as the alpha character, but few (“Clash by Night” and “Allotment Wives” come immediately to mind) actually tell the story from her perspective. The noir genre is veritably shitting itself with sad sacks just waiting to be taken advantage of, and that’s why “Detour” will probably never be dethroned as the essential noir. That said, “Decoy” is pretty extraordinary for what it is, with a main femme fatale that ranks right up there with “Leave Her to Heaven” and “Double Indemnity” in terms of memorability.

decoy 2The fatale in question is Margot, and she’s played by Jean Gillie in an extraordinary performance. If you’ve never heard of Gillie before, it’s because she was primarily an actress in Britain. She came to America, made this film and then a supporting performance in “The Macomber Affair” (unseen by me). She was married to Jack Bernhard, the director of this film, and when the marriage dissolved, she raced home to England… and died of a pneumonia. The entire story is obviously tragic, much more so when you look at her work here, which is calculated in a way so perfect that you cannot look away from her. For most of the film, she speaks in a very straightforward, logical manner, as if this is the only way to think about a given situation, no matter how insane. But then at the film’s climax, Margot shoots a man, collects a box of money and cackles as she almost skips out of the dark woods toward her car. The sudden turn in character is brilliant and Gillie takes it just to the edge of caricature without going over. It’s a truly beautiful moment… in a dark and fucked up way, of course.

Had Gillie been the only great thing about “Decoy” it still would be a decent film, but screenwriter Nedrick Young (who later wrote “The Defiant Ones” and “Inherit the Wind”) and director Bernhard have a few more tricks up their sleeves. The film begins with a doctor named Craig (Herbert Rudley) seemingly coming back to life and then marching across state on a mission. He hitchhikes hundreds of miles to an apartment building where he shoots Margot point blank. How did this happen? It’s a “gotcha” opening that engages you immediately, and soon we’re flashing back.

Margot is boinking a mobster named, un-shockingly, Frankie (Robert Armstrong, appropriately oily). Frankie’s got almost half a million stored somewhere, but won’t tell Margot. This doubly sucks for Margot since Frankie is in prison and about to head to the gas chamber. She begs him to give her the location, but he says the only way she’ll get it is if she breaks him out.

decoy 3So Margot comes up with a plan. She’ll break Frankie out… after he’s dead. Yes, you read that part right. She partners/seduces rival mobster Jim (Edward Norris) and the aforementioned Craig in no time flat and tells them her plan. Let Frankie die and then steal his body, inject it with something called methylene blue, and Frankie will come back to life. Again, you read that right. I spent 30 seconds Googling methylene blue, and it counteracts cyanide, which I assume is what they used in the gas chambers back in the day. So there you go, a foolproof method to come back to life – you’re welcome.

It’s nuts. But so was “The Narrow Margin” and a myriad of other films noir, but you still get wrapped up in the storytelling. It works. You can’t take your eyes off Margot, and the three men she’s got wrapped around her little finger all give suitably good performances as they willingly turn around to get stabbed in the back. Yep, none of you will be surprised to learn that she betrays all of them. The most grisly method is reserved for Jim, who she runs over with her car seconds after he changes her tire. Aww…

Also in play is a detective Margot calls JoJo (Sheldon Leonard), who is so hardboiled he eats hardboiled eggs at a bar. I don’t have much more to say about him, I just wanted to make the egg joke above.

The scenes involving Frankie’s body are impressively staged, with Bernhard using long, dark shadows in large, mostly empty rooms. Young has some fun with the scene where two morgue attendants argue hilariously about word pronunciation and how to properly fold a sheet around a body. The moment Frankie is brought back to life, the slight bumps in his heart are echoed perfectly by Edward J. Kay’s score and you get goosebumps. There’s something awesome about Frankie needing to prove it to himself that he’s still alive, and does so by blowing on a match to show he’s breathing again.

Through it all, Margot seems to perfectly calculate every situation, bouncing from man to man depending on what the moment calls for, but in reality only caring about the money. She has this monologue about the streets she grew up on in England being no different than the streets we see here, and Gillie nails Young’s great dialogue. Then, as Craig digs up the box of money, Margot maniacally cackles another string of great dialogue, but Gillie makes it sound like Margot is having great sex, ramping up for an orgasm the moment she gets her mitts on the money.

It all ends with Margot spitting out her final triumph as she bleeds to death. She asks JoJo to kiss her, then laughs in his face as he bends over to give her one. After she dies, it’s revealed that the money isn’t in the box. Of course it wasn’t. But Margot died thinking it was. Thinking she won. And that somehow feels fitting for the final fadeout. “Decoy” is absurd, but you’ll never forget it once you watch it, and how many films can you say that about?

Score: *****

Swing Time

swing time 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 90

Release: September 4, 1936

Writer: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott (adaptation), Erwin Gelsey (story)

Director: George Stevens

Star: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore

Cinematography: David Abel

Music: Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields

Ugh, why can’t they just shut up and dance?

“Swing Time” is preposterous, stupid, at times unwatchable…and yet its dance numbers are some kind of perfect. Though they look effortless, I’m sure endless hours were spent creating these three-and-four minute magical sequences. If only a fraction of that time had been spent on the screenplay…

The plot…well…I think I understood a little bit of it. Fred Astaire portrays a gambler/dancer named Lucky, who misses out on his wedding because his brothers convince him his pants aren’t up to snuff (seriously). His fiancé tells him that she won’t marry him unless he goes to New York City and make $30,000 (seriously), so Lucky goes and meets Penny (Ginger Rogers). From there things get muddy.

swing time 2The characters change their motivations and come to decisions that make The Idiot Plot from romantic comedies seem inspired. The Lucky character is originally portrayed as a gullible pushover in the first two reels, but is suddenly ballsy enough to begin betting big bucks and telling off the wrong people once he gets to New York. He also basically destroys Penny’s life a piece at a time for a half hour after he meets her, and then suddenly we are supposed to believe they are a dancing team? I’d say looking anywhere below the surface would reveal huge plot holes, but they are often right there onscreen.

Penny and Lucky’s romance is one of the most convoluted in any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. He’s engaged to another woman but apparently can’t simply cut it off even though he’s falling in love with Penny, but then again she doesn’t seem to like him at all, except for the fact that she lets him follow her around everywhere. I finally threw up my hands and gave up trying to keep track during a beautifully shot sequence in the woods just north of the City, where Astaire and his father (Victor Moore) talk about the plot. The father doesn’t want Lucky gambling because he might win the $30,000 (because the fiancé will figure that out by telepathy, apparently) and he wants Lucky to stay with Penny, but then Lucky pleads with his Father to not let him get near Penny. I don’t know why, either. The father seems to be rooting for them to get together, but later, when they are about to kiss, throws a snowball at them to stop them. Yeah, I don’t understand it either. Oh, and in the background of all this Penny has another handsome suitor (who’s a nice guy to boot) champing at the bit to marry her.

If none of that made sense, it’s because of the plot, not my writing.

If the romance doesn’t make sense, then plot mechanics make even less. Lucky has a phenomenal dance number on the “reopening” night of a popular nightclub, but later when he and Penny lose control of the orchestra (seriously) they throw their hands up that they are finished, apparently forgetting that the audience would surely clamor for more of their dancing after seeing Lucky’s first performance that night, and then it would be quite simple to find another place to dance in. They are, after all, in New York City. By the final scene, the writers seem to give up entirely and just have the characters all simultaneously cackle until the movie fades to black.

Sections like those are nearly unwatchable, filmed with tepid dialogue in boring medium shots with actors apparently unaware of what the word “subtlety” means (Astaire’s shocked face is so overdone it might as well have come from a silent film).

Ah, but when “Swing Time” lets its characters sing and dance, everything else falls away. There’s more emotion in half a minute of Astaire and Rogers dancing than all the excess trash surrounding it. There are rarely cuts during the musical numbers, and the film is all the better for it, because it gives the scenes a grandeur and reality missing from the rest of the movie. Their final dance number, “Never Gonna Dance” is breathtaking. Here we can see the pain they feel at their imminent separation and the idea that they may never be able to dance with one another again. It’s as sensual as if they were making love to one another.

swing time 3Astaire has a “solo” number, “Bojangles of Harlem” (in unfortunate blackface) that is filled with the kind of creativity and high energy modern musicals have long forgotten. At one point he’s leading a line of twenty dancers in what appears to be a waltz effortlessly. Later in the number, he dances before three of his shadows, perfectly in sync at first until the real Astaire begins to out-dance the shadows. Moments like that can leave you cheering.

If not for the dancing, “Swing Time” would have been long forgotten. Sure, there are a few things about the film outside the dance that are passable, but those are details, not the meat and bones. The aforementioned scene in the snow is kind of wonderful to look at, and makes me wish more romantic comedies filmed in the snow. The club has some great set design going for it, with a staircase that goes on for an eternity and a floor finished with a great painting of the city. Its tables all appear to use cling wrap as tablecloths, but the less said about that the better.

The director, George Stevens, gives the musical numbers a lush, full quality missing from everywhere else. Stevens is a great actor’s director (he had recently directed “Alice Adams,” which is quite possibly Katherine Hepburn’s best performance in a career of best performances), so it’s shocking to see the abysmal acting moments coming from almost the entire cast. The exception is Rogers, who never quite gets bogged down in her character’s stupidity and remains elegant and appealing throughout. I just don’t understand why Stevens couldn’t have taken the time the actors needed to create interesting characters, or why he didn’t insist on a comprehensible, witty script instead of the dreadful thing he shot.

My Score (out of five): **

Scandal

scandal 1Year: 1950

Studio: Shochiku Co. Ltd.

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Shirley Yamaguchi, Noriko Sengoku

Cinematographer: Toshio Ubukata

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

I’m surprised that “Scandal” hasn’t amassed a larger following among cinephiles – its main topic of the paparazzi and how they affect the lives of people is in the zeitgeist and has been there for over a decade now. In many ways, this film has dated the least of any of Kurosawa’s oeuvre, and between its motorcycles and odes to two iconic American directors, it’s also the most American of his films so far – a huge change from the anti-American subtext in many of his previous movies. The fact that it’s pretty good should be a factor too. And yet it doesn’t seem to make much of a splash with critics, film buffs and didn’t even merit its own DVD release from Criterion, instead being sandwiched into the “Postwar Kurosawa” Eclipse set. Weird.

Our story concerns a B-list painter named Ichiro (Toshiro Mifune), who is photographed with the famous actress Miyako (Shirley Yamaguchi) on her hotel room’s balcony. Though they are both in their robes, it’s an innocent moment, with Miyako straining to see something Ichiro is pointing at. The photograph is sold, both are plastered on the cover of Amour Magazine with a story claiming they are lovers, and Ichiro decides to sue.

Of major note with “Scandal” is that it’s the closest Kurosawa ever comes to blatantly ripping off the style of another director (or two). The early stretches of the movie, with the employees of Amour discussing whether to publish the photo, the circus music that plays while the issue is being printed and one delightful sequence in particular where Ichiro and the editors trade barbs in the press like a tennis match, feels so much like a Billy Wilder movie that I was gobsmacked to see that Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” came out a year after “Scandal.” The other, bigger influence on the movie is undoubtedly Frank Capra, and those overtures begin the moment Takashi Shimura enters frame.

scandal 2Shimura gives an astoundingly good performance as Hiruta (one that frankly steals the movie out from under its “star” Mifune), a down-and-out lawyer who shoves his way into Ichiro’s studio and presents himself, all while pouring raw sewage from his shoes (he stepped in the wrong puddle on the way over) onto Ichiro’s floor. Hiruta has a hunchback, eyes that often bulge and is a big drinker. His law practice isn’t exactly booming, since his office is a converted birdhouse on the roof of a building (not kidding), but then again neither is his family life. His wife isn’t exactly a talker, and his daughter Masako (Yoko Katsuragi) is suffering from a really bad case of tuberculosis that has kept her in bed for many years. In other words, he’s a mess, but Ichiro hires him anyway.

From this point onward, it becomes readily apparent that Kurosawa is trying his best to make a Frank Capra movie. While the humor in the first third was broad, there was a lot of bite to it – but after Hiruta shows up, the tone noticeably alters. We realize that, even though we’ve been following Ichiro for over half an hour, the movie is really about Hiruta. The lawyer isn’t above taking bribes from Amour to get some extra money for his family, though the guilt of what he is doing quickly hobbles him emotionally to the point of being unable to function. We learn that Ichiro hired him because he hoped that the case would bring Hiruta out of his funk, and has known from minute one that the lawyer was double crossing him, but forgives him because he thinks Hiruta will do the right thing in the end. Yes, really. Hiruta’s poor, dying daughter is basically Tiny Tim, and Hiruta’s redemption in the last act hinges on her death. Oh, and there’s this metaphor about stars that I’d rather not discuss because “ugh.”

scandal 3Okay, in case you didn’t realize from reading the last paragraph, but the movie begins to lay it on pretty thick. Like most of Capra’s work, there comes a point where you just either go with it or don’t. Here it’s a long sequence where Hiruta comes home drunk to find Ichiro and Miyako singing “Silent Night” for the adorable dying girl after decorating her house for Christmas. Hiruta takes Ichiro to a bar where they sing “Auld Lang Syne” and drunkenly wander around town together. Nothing happens of note to further the plot – it’s basically a variation on the bus singing scene in “It Happened One Night” or the pool scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” in that it’s completely implausible but still oddly charming.

If you don’t go with that, then you certainly won’t go with the shenanigans in the court room. You won’t go with Ichiro’s defense to the judge being that he or the actress don’t “look” like the type of people who would lie (note again that she’s an actress). You won’t buy Hiruta calling himself on the stand to confess everything and come away clean. And you’ll probably roll your eyes when a cheer goes up as Ichiro wins the case, despite the fact that the spectators were malicious and rude in every prior scene.

Did I buy it? It’s like Nancy Meyers wrote in “The Holiday”: “I love corny. I’m looking for more corny in my life.”

A lot happens in “Scandal.” For a movie that is about an hour-and-forty minutes, you’ve got the actual scandal, the first set of repercussions, the lawyer, the bribe, the dying kid, the courtroom, the slowly simmering romance between the artist and the actress, the drinking and plenty more. But the movie oddly doesn’t “feel” overstuffed, with Kurosawa and his co-screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima zipping back and forth from one to another with relative ease, and because they don’t really care about the tone of the movie (instead assuming the actors will keep everything making sense), it’s easier to get away with it. They do take their time with important scenes or moments, like when we see Ichiro riding on his motorcycle with a Christmas tree tied to the back (it’s the most memorable shot of the entire movie).

Another great moment takes place when Ichiro can’t find a copy of the magazine he’s on the cover of. Frustrated, he simply shows up at the offices of Amour and demands a copy, then sits there in silence for what must be a minute reading the article about him. Everyone stares, but he doesn’t look up. Finally, he finishes, and when the editor approaches him, Ichiro simply knocks him out and leaves, the 1950 equivalent of a mic drop.

But while Mifune’s character is interesting and Shimura’s a revelation, the women don’t come off well. Like at all. Miyako should be, for all intents and purposes, the third lead, but her character is so ill-defined and useless that she becomes wallpaper by the halfway point. She’s there, but doesn’t make an impact. The screenwriters do something very odd when introducing her or talking about Miyako in general – they never let her speak and define who she is. Ichiro guesses about what kind of person she is. Her ballbusting mother does the same. In other words, she’s not a character, but a cipher. Worse still is Ichiro’s “best friend,” a horrible woman named Sumie and played by Noriko Sengoku. Sengoku also helped sink “The Quiet Duel,” and here her character actively hurts otherwise good scenes. Sumie is introduced complaining that Ichiro no longer draws her nude, then gives Ichiro the very worst advice possible over and over again, like the sad best friend in any awful romantic comedy. And sure, Masako is awesome and her death is a major plot point, but in all her beautiful dying she remains a saint, not a character. Whether consciously or not, Kurosawa adds in a moment that perhaps says more about his view of the female characters in this movie than he meant it too – when Sumi and Miyako are talking too much, Ichiro walks over to his motorcycle and just starts revving to drown them out.

I don’t think “Scandal” is like any other Kurosawa movie – it’s deeply flawed but doesn’t care, and I like that kind of gumption in a film. It means to say something about redemption, says it with more than a little treacle, but never grates. I wish more of you would watch it.

Notes:

-The article about this in the Criterion DVD is a waste of paper. Absolutely worthless.

-Ichiro is a painter, so it’s easy to see that Kurosawa put a lot into him, though it’s frankly odd that we never get a good look at any of his work.

Crossfire

crossfire 1The Film Noir Odyssey

Writer: John Paxton

Based on the novel “The Brick Foxhole” by Richard Brooks

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Cinematographer: J. Roy Hunt

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Gloria Grahame, George Cooper

Release: July 22, 1947

Studio: RKO Radio Pictures

Awards: Nominated for Best Picture (lost to “Gentleman’s Agreement”), Best Director (lost to Elia Kazan for “Gentleman’s Agreement”), Best Supporting Actor for Robert Ryan (lost to Edmund Gwenn for “Miracle on 34th Street”), Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame (lost to Celeste Holm for “Gentleman’s Agreement”) and Best Adapted Screenplay (lost to “Miracle on 34th Street”)

Percent Noir: 80%

Well… that sucked.

I take no pride in telling you that “Crossfire” is a bad movie. As I turned it on, I was actively rooting for it to blow me away. It’s a noir from the director of “Murder, My Sweet” starring the three Roberts plus Gloria Grahame. It rails against antisemitism, and in doing so, its director (among others) would be blacklisted thanks to the Communist witch hunts (it really, really didn’t pay to be liberal in Hollywood back then)… so it means something. Even more, it was nominated for 5 Oscars including Best Picture, and was the first B-picture ever to be nominated for that award. So please understand that I went into the movie hoping and expecting it to be amazing.

But then it wasn’t good.

The story, adapted by John Paxton and directed by Edward Dmytryk, is fairly straightforward for a murder mystery. A Jewish man is found killed in his apartment and Captain Finlay (Robert Young) is assigned to the case. He was killed by a serviceman named Montgomery (Robert Ryan), who attempts to frame another officer named Mitchell (George Cooper). Oh, and Robert Mitchum is there too, because… actually, I’m not sure, and I bet neither did the filmmakers.

crossfire 2Fundamentally, I have issues here. So many issues. Did the filmmakers think that the story was supposed to function as a mystery at all? If so, they really blew their load within the first five minutes, and then let the cat out of the bag motive-wise twenty minutes in when Montgomery reveals he’s very anti-Semitic. And Montgomery is a fundamentally stupid villain – dumb enough to murder another guy in a plot “twist” while screaming “I don’t like Jews! And I don’t like nobody that likes Jews!!” Subtle. Very. Oh, and that killing should make it so much easier for the police to realize it’s him.

We never get a sense that Mitchell’s character, who is the prime suspect, is in any real danger of being arrested – he’s an afterthought in the plot. There’s apparently a manhunt out for him that the writer and director don’t exploit at all, and then they stick him in a movie theater for a good chunk of the movie because they don’t want to deal with the character. Later when his wife (Jacqueline White, trying hard) shows up and, among other things, speaks with the sex worker (Gloria Grahame) who might have fucked him during the time the murder took place, you things might pick up… but again, the movie drops it almost as soon as it happens, no consequences aside from an offhand line from Mitchum near the end of the film.

Noir has some really, really stupid cops in it, but Finlay is in a class by himself. He never investigates anything! He tells people that they are in custody, then lets them go about their business doing whatever they want. He keeps Mitchum’s character around for no reason (perhaps someone to bounce exposition off of?). He allows the suspect’s wife to talk to him in the theater before picking him up! Then he allows her to talk to Grahame’s sex worker/possible witness before he does, despite the fact that it may color the investigation! When Finlay finally realizes that it was the really suspicious-acting guy who was spewing anti-Semitic stuff from minute one, he forms an elaborate plan where a stupid man has to convince Montgomery that his murder victim is alive then pass him a note with an address to go to. Got that? Not just pass Montgomery a note that says “Hey, I know you strangled me and then hung me, but I’m alive, so come to my address so we can talk more,” which is already a stretch.

crossfire 3And how can one overlook the finale, with execution so silly it’s laughable. Montgomery races out of the apartment where Finlay is confronting him without confessing, and hurries outside where he sees a police car, then runs in the other direction. Does the car simply chase him down to catch him? Nope! With nary a confession or any real evidence, Finlay breaks the window of the apartment and guns the unarmed Montgomery down in the street. Because of course.

And then there’s the whole antisemitism of it all. I’m sure audiences were certain going in that they were watching a message movie (look at the poster, for example) and perhaps that’s why Paxton shows his hand so early. But that’s no excuse for the 15 minute, excruciating sequence where Finlay brings in the idiot necessary for his plan and, at length, monologues messages about tolerance as if he were speaking to a pre-schooler. Seriously, “The Sneetches” is more subtle. Again, the audience probably knew that this was a message movie, so the filmmakers were essentially preaching to the choir, making all of this unnecessary. Plus, I doubt many anti-Semites are going to voluntarily go to a movie about antisemitism. I’m all for great messages of tolerance in films, but I’d prefer them presented well. Look at how homophobia is presented in “Victim” just a few years later (which is a little problematic in itself) and it’s like night and day.

Dmytryk seems to be on autopilot here, unable to make the film distinctive visually nor getting good performances from his actors. There’s a flashback here where the characters are drunk and their faces slightly blur, which feels like a cheap visual cue considering how sublime he handled the drugged Phillip Marlow in “Murder, My Sweet.” You’ve got the usual shadows created by staircases and…well… not much else of note.

And, as I said, the performances aren’t that great. Each of the main cast gets a monologue or two to play around with, but the writing isn’t engaging and you realize halfway through their speeches that they aren’t saying much of anything. Ryan was nominated for an Oscar for his work, which is surprising considering he’s playing “obviously psycho dude” in every scene. Grahame was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and does fine, though her work pales in comparison to “The Big Heat” and “In a Lonely Place” and “Sudden Fear” and “The Bad and the Beautiful” and… I’ll stop before I get started. Cooper is a very decent actor and I’m surprised he never did anything else with his career. Young does nothing with the role and is quickly forgotten. Mitchum, as I said, has no purpose in the film but to stand around giving the affair star quality (why wasn’t he cast as the husband?). He looks bored, and rightfully so.

If you do decide to watch “Crossfire” for its historical importance, might I suggest a drinking game to get you through? Take a drink every time any character says “fella” or “buddy.” You’ll be drunk by the ten-minute mark, which should make the rest of it go down easy.

Score: *

Sophie’s Choice

sophie 1AFI Top 100 Ranking: 91

Release: December 8, 1982

Writer: Alan J. Pakula (adaptation), William Styron (novel)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

Star: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol

Studio: Universal Pictures

Cinematography: Nestor Almendros

Music: Marvin Hamlisch

With apologies to the other depressing films on the AFI Top 100, “Sophie’s Choice” is by far the most miserable and bleak. It tells a sad, sad story in just about the saddest way possible. There’s no hint of redemption or hope to be found anywhere—the filmmakers make sure of this. I’m pretty sure that’s what they were going for, so on those terms the film is a success, but really, the only reason to sit through these two-and-a-half hours is Meryl Streep. Her iconic performance makes the movie necessary viewing, though I doubt many would want to sit through it twice.

The film opens as an idealistic young Southern writer named Stingo (Peter MacNicol) arrives in Brooklyn looking to write the great American novel. He moves into a pink house and becomes fast friends with his upstairs neighbors Nathan (Kevin Kline) and Sophie (Streep). They seem very much in love, but their relationship is bittered by Nathan’s frequent outbursts and abusive behavior. Stingo immediately becomes enamored with Sophie, a Polish immigrant who lost both of her children in German concentration camps during World War II. Things get complicated as secrets are revealed from both of his friends’ lives, and then everything gets very heightened and tragic.

sophie 2Just who is Stingo? I kept going back to that question repeatedly throughout the film. It’s not that MacNicol gives a bad performance (he is, after all, a very good actor), it’s that the character is written so blandly that we get no insight into who he is. He witnesses conversations between Nathan and Sophie instead of involving himself in the conversation. He’s told horrifyingly tragic things, and yet we never see him react in any way other than widening his eyes. I would have loved to hear his opinion about everything that is going on, especially since screenwriter Alan J. Pakula (also the director) provides us with voiceover from Stingo. We never even get an idea of what his novel is about, other than that it concerns “the South” (that narrows it down). Since he’s the character we first see and it’s his voice narrating the story, one would assume that the film is “about” his journey. Nope. I understand that, in theory, his arc is that he begins with naïve aspirations and becomes slowly jaded by the sad realities around him, but I don’t see that anywhere. Hell, as the film ends, he sees his two best friends (one of them his first lover) dead in an embrace after committing mutual suicide, and he can’t even articulate a thought—he has to read it from a book of poetry.

The film is based on a novel, unread by me, which is heralded as a masterpiece by many. I’m guessing Stingo is the narrator there as well, and this could be the inherent problem. Look at classics like Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” or Berendt’s nonfiction piece “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Because they are ciphers who record the movements of more memorable characters and situations, the characters of Nick and John work on the page. But the film versions? The characters are ultimately unnecessary and snooze-worthy because film doesn’t need that extra translator. That is true here as well.

But then there’s Meryl.

sophie 3Pakula seems perfectly happy to do what so many directors have done since this film. He sets the camera up with a slow zoom-in and then jumps out of the way to let her do her thing. Streep is phenomenal, putting so many just-right details into the character and giving Sophie all the layers of complexity the character deserves. She is so good that she manages to land jokes about her character’s accent and shaky English that were so bad they should have never gotten into the script (example: “Is that your Cocksucker?” “I think you mean Seersucker.”). It has to be one of the most difficult characters ever put on film, and Streep simply disappears into her. It’s a “showy” performance, at least in that the character screams and cries, gets her head shaved and has to speak in several languages…but it’s the smaller beats that make you believe in her. Look at Sophie’s eyes every time Nathan walks through the door…always excited to see her love but also just a little horrified that he might be brutal to her again. Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s because of her that the film has achieved “classic” status and is on this list.

It’s not that the rest of the film is “bad,” it’s just not on the same level as her performance (and how many other Streep vehicles could be summed up in the same way?). There are good moments throughout, as when Sophie is caught trying to steal a radio by the young daughter of a Nazi general. The girl talks about turning Sophie in, but the truth is that she just wants someone to talk to. The reveal of the house Sophie will work in while at the Concentration Camps is well-done—Pakula’s camera swoops up from the death, destruction and mud behind her, over a barbed-wire covered wall…and into the equivalent of paradise.

There’s one genuine moment of happiness, when the three friends are playing around together at Coney Island by going on rides together, and even that is undercut by voiceover reminding us that Sophie and Nathan are doomed. Ultimately, I think the sadness becomes too oppressive and I just had to stop investing myself. We get a very long flashback to Sophie’s time in the Concentration Camp, then get more abuse from Nathan, then learn Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic who has been lying to everyone in his life for years, then Nathan threatens to kill Sophie and Stingo with a gun, then Sophie relates to us what the “choice” of the title really means, then there’s the mutual suicide…it’s as if Pakula is repeatedly punching the viewer in the face and demanding that we “cry, damn it, cry!” Somewhere in there it stopped feeling real and started feeling like manipulation, and once “Sophie’s Choice” crosses that line, everything except Streep’s performance no longer works.

My Score (out of 5): ***

Stray Dog

Nora_inu_posterThe Kurosawa Odyssey

Year: 1949

Studio: Toho Studios

Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa & Ryuzo Kikushima

Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji, Eiko Miyoshi

Cinematographer: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

That “Stray Dog” works at all today as a modern miracle. Its detective tropes and the dynamic of the two detectives at the center of the film have inspired hundreds of thousands of similar mysteries and noirs, both in film and on television. And yet not only does this movie work, but it works incredibly well.  This is the second noir Kurosawa co-wrote and directed, and far better than “Drunken Angel.” It’s also the movie where I’d say Kurosawa became “Kurosawa.”

The plot is simple but engaging. A newly minted police detective named Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his gun pickpocketed on a crowded city bus. He becomes obsessed with finding the person who has the gun, which is being used for heinous crimes all throughout Toyko. At a certain point, Murakami is partnered up with a more seasoned detective named Sato (Takashi Shimura), whose approach to policing couldn’t be further from Murakami’s. Oh, and there’s a heat wave because things are always better when they take place in heat waves.

Both of the main characters are fascinating, and screenwriters Ryuzo Kikushima and Kurosawa create a masterstroke in delaying the introduction of Sato until almost 45 minutes into the movie. 99.99% of similar detective stories introduce the two paired detectives right away so we get to know them through their interaction with one another, but not here. The writers give us 40-odd minutes with just Murakami – we get to know him and, very importantly, understand why he’s as obsessed with getting the gun back as he is. If Sato was there from the get go with his differing opinions about how Murakami should be reacting to the situation, it would have hurt our identification with him.

tumblr_lzk4q4MPFV1r9w2jlo1_500What also makes Murakami interesting is that, if things had gone just a little bit differently, he could have been the frightened penniless murderer with the gun. Murakami was in the war, and the amount of able men who returned to find nothing waiting for them is staggering (something Kurosawa has touched on in four movies before this one), and getting the detective’s job was just plain luck. It didn’t have to happen that way. This brings an unease to the final confrontation between “hero” and “villain,” because in a way we are watching Murakami fight against himself.

Pretty deep for what at first glance appears to be a completely straightforward detective story, right?

And then we have Sato, who is unfortunately the lesser of the two detectives in terms of our engagement. This is completely not the fault of the film, the writing or Shimura’s wonderful performance. Everything about his character has been mined so many times in so many lesser movies beat for beat that you can’t help but know exactly what he’s going to say, how he’s going to say it and what’s going to happen in response. The second Sato takes Murakami home to meet the family, you know he’s going to be shot and that Murakami is going to feel guilt about it. You know he’s going to tell the youngster not to be as emotionally invested in the case as he is.

MV5BMTYzNzYzMjYxMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjIxMjU4Mw@@._V1_SY500_CR0,0,707,500_AL_Even as I write that, I should point out that the way he is introduced is still interesting and, ultimately, superior to almost every homage and rip-off of Sato’s character. Instead of the co-writers immediately setting up the dynamic between the two detectives, they let Sato take charge of the investigation, with Murakami in the backseat observing the way he questions suspects and deduces things from the information he’s just gleaned.

Together, Mifune and Shimura crackle together with more chemistry than in their previous collaborations combined. They just… work. Simple as that. It would be easy but ultimately futile to talk about specific moments and why it works, because a lot of it is just fate. Let the excellence just be excellent.

The movie is very interestingly shot and edited. I would love to read the original screenplay to see just how many of the distinctive elements come from the writing and how many surfaced in the editing room. Some don’t work, but the vast majority do.

First is the out of continuity opening, where we learn he lost the gun by seeing Murakami tell his boss, then we zip back and forth as we uncover how exactly it happened. It sets the stakes high quickly, show that Murakami is a good officer despite this grievous error that could make viewers unsympathetic, and keeps us intellectually engaged as it peels away the layers of the onion. There’s even a narrator, who is randomly there and gone, but it still works in the context of the opening.

The second is an incredibly long sequence, lasting minutes, where Murakami is wandering through the slums and bombed out areas of Tokyo in order to be seen as a “lost soul” and be approached by someone who will lend him a gun. You keep thinking the sequence must be wrapping up, but it doesn’t. And it doesn’t. And it still doesn’t. But it oddly doesn’t become grating – it’s a masterstroke that Kurosawa let it go as long as it does. On a simple plot level, it reflects the frustration Murakami must be feeling about his inability to easily solve the case. On a deeper level, it’s Kurosawa laying train tracks that sets up Murakami’s identifying with the man who stole his gun…and underlines how close Murakami was to this life. Finally, on a “let’s be real” level, it works because that’s how cases are in real life – full of fits and starts, but sometimes stuck with the wheels spinning for an eternity.

The third is a big set piece that does not work. It’s at the biggest baseball game of the year – every person in Tokyo seems to be there… including the man who apparently has the gun. The two detectives have to find him and, more importantly, get the gun from him before he kills innocent people. The stakes couldn’t be higher…but it just doesn’t work. Kurosawa and his editor cut away for a long time to the actual gameplay on the field, and I’m not sure why. It doesn’t help with the suspense, nor does it help us on a character level. It’s just… there. It’s hard not to think about what a missed opportunity this is, especially considering it’s one of the centerpieces of the movie. Imagine what Welles or Hitchcock or Hawks could have done with that and you’ll see why it’s such a letdown.

Finally, you’ve got the finale, which has Murakami fighting with the villain in an endless field of flowers. In theory, it’s just another variation on stuff we’ve seen from Kurosawa before – the high grass battle in “Sanshiro Sugata,” the snow battle in “Sanshiro Sugata Part 2,” – but in execution it’s beautiful. The flowers are such a brilliant image at odds with what is happening, and the moment after Murakami is shot and blood from his hand drips on a white flower is the most memorable in the movie. Well, that or the shot of the two men, handcuffed together and attempting to recover from their fight. They both struggle to catch their breath, and then the villain just starts to scream at the top of his lungs in agony. At his life, at being caught… at everything. It’s emotionally shattering.

I like Kurosawa’s two subsequent crime movies, “High and Low” and “The Bad Sleep Well” more than “Stray Dog,” but then again those are both masterpieces that rank as two of the greatest films of all time. That said, “Stray Dog” is a distinguished noir, one that works better than almost all it inspired, and if this was the only movie Kurosawa ever made, it’s safe to say that it would still be remembered fondly today.

Notes:

-The women in this movie are the most fascinating characters that Murakami and Sato encounter. The first, who Murakami follows throughout the entire hot day before finally giving in and helping him while they share a beer, is so much deeper than she needed to be. The girlfriend of the villain is shallow, but purposely shallow, and still very engaging.

-You’ve got to love the seeds being planted for “Scandal” when someone states the following about a dead body being photographed by many photographers: “She would never want anyone to see her this way.”

-There’s another musical number in this movie, a well done one, but the really cool part happens immediately after. The dancers walk backstage and literally collapse from exhaustion and heat, their legs simply giving up on them.

-The Criterion disc has a wonderful essay by Terrence Rafferty that mentions that Kurosawa didn’t like the film because he didn’t feel like it captured the mood of the author he was trying to emulate. Rafferty argues that this is a moot point since it’s the first Kurosawa movie where the identity of its creator is so obviously Kurosawa – not influenced by anyone else. I agree with this assessment.