My 12 Classics for 2016/ Blind Spot project is an attempt to catch up on well-regarded essentials of cinema, and this time I turned one of my must-sees on that list into a Akira Kurosawa-Toshiro Mifune double feature.
Stray Dog (1949): A gritty police procedural in “après-guerre” Japan, in the middle of a killer heat wave. The pistol of rookie homicide detective (Toshiro Mifune) is stolen and as he searches for the weapon, he increasingly despairs over his effectiveness, wonders about the role of luck and nature vs. nurture in forming a criminal, and blames himself for the deaths caused by his gun in the hand of another. His resignation letter is torn up and he’s put to the test of his young career. He wanders and scours underworld dives until he comes face to face with the killer using his Colt, a war vet very much like him (Isao Kimura). From their similar experiences and a very specific point of disillusionment they have in common–having their knapsacks stolen on the way home from the war–their paths diverged to place them on opposite sides of the law. Their showdown is juxtaposed with a woman who pauses her piano lesson long enough to shrug at them, and a passing group of singing schoolchildren.
The scorching sun, suffocating heat and drenching humidity magnifies Mifune’s tortured, obsessive search for clues. It’s so oppressive and drawn-out you want to grab one of those ever-present fans as you watch Mifune pound pavement for days, get squished in the crowds, or see those dancing girls flop down half-dead after their club act. As in The Naked City (1948), the older detective here (Takashi Shimura) makes the job look easy, is an expert at befriending, fooling and gleaning info from underworld figures, and advises Mifune against having a nervous breakdown with every setback or taking cases too personally. Mifune is intense and relentless, at one point tailing a pickpocket so annoyingly well that he wears her down, and she brings him a beer on a rooftop where they gaze at the stars. A needle-in-a-haystack search for a suspect in a packed baseball stadium is one of several suspenseful parts. A stylish sun-baked noir, less polished and gripping than High and Low (1963), but a similar procedural-as-window into personal drama and character.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960): A complex, soapy tale of government/crony capitalist graft and cover-ups, father-son relationships, guilt and vengeance, and a bleak fight where a valiant but flawed individual is crushed under a huge organization. The opening wedding reception is a brilliant setup for all the personalities and scandals that figure in the story. Toshiro Mifune plays the illegitimate son of an executive who died under suspicious circumstances. He hides his true identity and marries the CEO’s daughter (Kyôko Kagawa) so he can destroy the company which he believes killed his father. He falls in love with the wife he initially just meant to use, and opens her eyes to her father’s true nature, something her black sheep alcoholic brother (Tatsuya Mihashi) has talked about for years. Shakespearean scope and themes as ferocious avenging anti-hero Mifune exposes the weasels, and causes terror while rounding up evidence and some obedient executives (Takashi Shimura and Kamatari Fujiwara). Mifune makes Fujiwara watch his own funeral and face the evil of his employers, and then presents him as a “ghost” standing on dark streets, lit by headlights to spook a colleague. It’s playful terror devised by an essentially kind man who’s working out his own guilt but whose cruelty can’t match that of his opponents. Several other unforgettable images including the rose sticking out of the eighth-floor window in the office-building wedding cake, and toward the end there’s a roller-coaster ride of terror, relief and tragedy involving hunting gear, poisoned wine, a bombed-out hideaway, and a nice guy finishing last.
This post is part of the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee.