Stray Dog (1949) & The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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11 thoughts on “Stray Dog (1949) & The Bad Sleep Well (1960)”

  1. Both of these are big favorites of mine, so I’m happy to read you liked them. While I’m not keen on remaking great films, it would be innnnnteresing to see what a Scorcese could do with either one, but The Bad Sleep Well would probably be my first choice for a re-imagining.

    That said, I’d probably also want to host or contribute to a “Don’t You DARE Remake That!” blogathon if I had the time. A ton of excellent classics are getting retrofitted for modern audiences with shorter attention spans and that’s not always a good thing (to me at least)…

    1. I’ve seen the most famous Kurosawa but have been curious about these (and a few others) for a while, and was really pleased with them. Dog compares nicely to High and Low, seeing Mifune as the greenhorn learning from the older, wiser cop was great. I’d read about it being slow, but I though the pace worked well with the heat wave (among other things). TBSW would work with filmmakers who wouldn’t mess with the pace too much, that opening wedding scene might test modern attention spans, but it was so well done and packed with essential info.

  2. If you haven’t seen it yet, add 1969’s Red Beard to your list. It’s a longer and slower-paced Kurosawa film, but it’s a great look at the Japanese medical profession and assorted patients in Edo during the 19th century. It’s also Mifune’s final film with the director and it’s quite a send-off as he gives a solid performance (despite some on-set stress and other stuff that caused the two men to part ways afterwards).

  3. I remember going through my Kurosawa period after discovering them so many of his titles at Generation X. Love his films and was drawn to them because of Toshiro who by then had come to America and done many films with my faves like Bronson and Marvin.

    1. Same here, once I saw Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and a few other best known ones I stopped, so I’m glad I’ve added these titles plus especially High and Low. Plan on checking out many more!

  4. I picked up a second-hand VHS tape of “Stray Dog” at BMW a few years ago and it quickly became the treasure of my collection. I didn’t see “The Bad Sleep Well” until a screening last year on TCM. It broke my heart. You really captured the art and appeal of the diverse films.

  5. Both this films sound very intersting.
    I’v enever watched any film by Akira Kurosawa, but I know he’s particulalry interested in the motions of people’s soul. It seems particualy obvious is these two stories.
    Thanks so much for sharing.

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