Written for the screen by Millard Kaufman, and adapted by Don McGuire, from the short story “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin, and directed by John Sturges, “Bad Day at Black Rock” has elements of both noir and western as an inquisitve one-armed man comes to the small desert town of Black Rock in search of answers. Admittedly, when hitting play on this movie, I had fully expected a nineteenth century western to appear before my eyes mostly due to the title alone. What I got was an unexpected delight, as those assumptions had eroded fairly quickly as the opening of the film was following a train that was far too modern to be of the old west. The first hint of something odd afoot is when the train station telegrapher, Mr. Hastings (Russell Collins) seems surprised, and maybe even a bit worried, that the Train is slowing down to stop, the first time it has done so in four years.
After watching the complex and daunting (yet very impressive) “Tenet” earlier in the week, I was left wanting something slower and simpler. Which is exactly what I got with this film. At an hour and twenty minutes, this film offered me both something old and something new. I was very engaged by the mystery that the film wraps you in almost immediately, but it also has just enough of that Noir flavor sprinkled in to really set this one aside as slightly elevated nostalgia genre fare. For me, this film was comfort food. For about a third to the first half of the story, we really don’t know the intentions of either the townsfolk or this stranger, John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). All we know is that he’s searching for a Japanese American farmer named Komoko, and that everyone in town is suspicious of him once he starts asking around. At first I thought that the townsfolk might actually be protecting Komoko as one of their own from this Macreedy, possibly a government stooge? He had the suit for it, but as it turns out I wasn’t even close on first impressions as it became evidently clear what the truth of the situation was. Everyone in town tries to stall Macreedy at every turn, from not offering him a hotel room, physically getting in his way, to curt and aggressive social tactics. After awhile a young woman in town, Liz Wirth (Anne Francis) allows Macreedy to borrow her jeep to the disdain of Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), the unofficial ruler of this small town. Macreedy makes his way out to Adobe Flats, where he finds the remains of a charred house, a well with water deep in the bottom, and strangely enough, wildflowers growing.
On his way back into town Macreedy’s assailed by one of Smith’s goons, Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine), as he rams the small jeep around the uneven dirt road and eventually smashes Macreedy off the road with a laugh and a glare before beating him back to town. Eventually Macreedy puts enough clues together to get a good idea of what happened to Komoko, but he goes out of his way to confirm that before he and several good townsfolk acknowledge the real danger that Macreedy’s gotten himself into. I was particularly entertained by the exasperated, but good natured, Doc Velie (Walter Brennan) as he tries his best to help out Macreedy in his search for truth, and justice for Komoko. This was a quick delight of a film, and it’s wondrously anti-racist at it’s core. In fact the film almost didn’t get made as the subtle rebuke of Mccarthyism gave studio executives a myriad of problems on the matter, but it eventually got made in spite of this pushback. During my watch I was charmed by the old school mentality of an able-bodied actor with two working limbs trying to fake a lame one throughout the film production. They don’t make movies like that anymore, and while it could be a partial limb that the character was hiding, it’s pretty clear that Spencer Tracy’s just got his hand in his pocket the whole movie, but hey, it still gave the character more mystique initially. We eventually discover that he was a platoon leader in Italy during the war, which is fresh in everyone’s minds as this film is set in late 1945 after the war had just ended mere months ago. We eventually discover the humility and morality behind Macreedy’s reasoning in seeking out Komoko, but I’ll leave that one for you to discover on your own. There’s also a surprising and explosive scene in which Macreedy performs defensive judo moves on Coley Trimble under threat of intimidation tactics, and that alone would cover the price of admission for me. I found this one on the Criterion Channel, but it’s one that will be leaving at the end of the month, so check it out there while you can!
Written by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, based on a story by Wald, and directed by Jules Dassin, “The Naked City” is a police procedural that follows the NYPD Homicide department as they investigate the murder of a beautiful young woman who was drowned in her own bathtub. This dogged detective story was a delightful surprise, the film seems to have been ahead of its time in several departments, perhaps most notably with it’s depiction of darker content alongside a sort of docu-fictional representation of New York City and the many characters who populate it’s streets and buildings. Though the film has a huge cast of smaller roles that layer the story quite well, we chiefly follow Lieutenant Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) the head of the Homicide department, and the latest recruit in Detective Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor) who does most of the legwork on the case.
Mark Hellinger, producer of the film and former journalist, had a lot to do with the production. Not only did he conceive the idea of shooting the film on location instead of on a Hollywood set (revolutionary at the time), he’s even our omniscient narrator that pipes in throughout the film to give our heroes and villains prodding suggestions and commentary. While the narrator can be a bit dated and cheesy at times, the film does use narration in inventive ways that keeps the pace trotting along at an amicable pace. I was also surprised to hear the narrator give the villain words of encouragment in the third act after he’s been outed, which was an interesting touch- I wouldn’t have expected the narrator to care about the health of our murderer at all. Indeed, the film doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of criminality and that only makes the investigative work of the NYPD that much more dire as they put their feet and their minds to work in sniffing out the culprit. Inbetween shots of children playing in the open fire hydrant, women chatting while window shopping, and mothers tending to their crying babies, the film also shows us criminal partners offing each other in the east river and cleverly hides our villain in plain view several times. Muldoon’s gallows humor also supports this notion while subtely showcasing his years of experience in handling tragic cases such as this.
This film may have been the originator of many staples of the police procedural genre, so it’s worth a watch in that regard, but really it’s the character work that makes it noteworthy. Muldoon and Halloran make an excellent team but the ensemble work is where the film truly shines. The tiny flourishes of individuality given to all of the major players are something special, like the suspicous Frank Niles (Howard Duff) who’s brought in for questioning early on in the film- but is quickly found out to be a spectacular liar. You can find this film on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service (the criterion channel) or in their shop if you’re looking to purchase a physical copy. At an hour and a half, this was a charming and enjoyable noir-lite Detective tale that I encourage you to check out!
Recently in an effort to find more movies to watch and write about I dug into my old shelf of VHS tapes and before I knew it I had amassed sixteen different movies. At first I was speedily racking up neglected classics, a few re-watches of beloved favorites, and several delightful surprises. After about nine movies in though, I got into a funk. A personal note here, since roughly St. Patrick’s day of this year, I’ve been out of work due to the pandemic. I’ve been mostly fine in committing to writing about films and reading as much as possible on the subject. So, the short version of the story is I got burned out for about two weeks. This piece is a smaller selection of films I watched in that time that I wasn’t necessarily expecting to write about. Sometimes it’s just nice to immerse yourself into a movie without any expectations on how to write about it afterwards. So, if you’ve been reading this blog at all recently, you know that I have a great love for the Criterion Collection, both their physical media selection and their streaming service, the Criterion Channel. Below are several films from wildly divergent genres and styles, hopefully you’ll find something to enjoy!
The Thin Red Line(1998)
Written and directed by Terrence Malick, “The Thin Red Line” is a pensive and philosophical war movie that focuses on a fictionalized version of ‘the Battle of Mount Austen’ on a strategically important island in the Pacific between American and Imperial Japanese forces. This is the second film of Malick’s that I’ve seen, having only watched “The New World” in a college course years ago- I wasn’t impressed and that film had little to no impact on me except that I was wary of the filmmaker’s work. I appreciated this film far more, though to be fair, my taste in cinema has altered significantly in that time. At nearly three hours long, the film is a commitment, but I would argue that it’s a worthy one. There is a H U G E cast of well known names in this film, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John Travolta, John C. Reilly, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Thomas Jane, Jared Leto, and George Clooney- though we mostly focus on a handful of characters throughout the runtime. The principal characters that get the most focus are Jim Caviezel as an optimistic medic, Sean Penn as an aloof and discontent superior, Nick Nolte as the overbearing Colonel that has longed for war and felt damned by the passage of time, but also there’s Elias Koteas as the reliable and stable Captain with a wife at home. A lot of the larger names in the film have passing cameos that don’t play into the characterizations of specific individuals as much as they add to the macro sense of the larger message of the film. If you haven’t guessed, this isn’t your conventional war movie- not by a long shot. There’s a lot of meditative and questioning voice-over throughout the film, pondering on the nature of war, the violence of animals and nature itself, and of love. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war film this concerned with nature. The cinematography and framing of shots almost seems to imply that nature itself is fighting back at humanity for the folly of war. We don’t see any Japanese soldiers until far into the film, but before that we only see shots from hidden snipers glinting out of the grassy hills as men are shot dead. It’s a strangely unique film, and if you’re okay with an artsy war, then I’d recommend it- but I don’t expect it to be everyone’s cup of tea. Below I’ve listed a link to a video essay by a favorite YouTuber of mine, Patrick H. Willems. In the video he dives into Malick’s work and what the last twenty years of his career has been like, and why. I highly recommend that YouTube channel, Patrick’s been doing a strange Talk Show format since he was stranded at his parents at the beginning of Covid-19 and it’s some of the best stuff out there (I highly recommend the TCM Wine List video- I may be giving that a try myself).
Written and Directed by Brian De Palma, “Blow Out” is a conspiracy laden thriller that follows Foley Artist, Jack (John Travolta) who gets wrapped up in a murder mystery when he accidentally records audio of the act. Jack works as the sound guy for a cheesy, exploitation style, B-movie studio. In fact the opening of the film is of the film that Jack’s working on, which is very clearly inspired by the beginning sequence of Halloween (1978). However, all of the tension is cut out when the killer goes to stab a young woman in the shower and her scream is plainly, way too goofy for the mood of the film. After an argument in studio over getting a new scream and Jack’s old wind sound bites, he heads out to a bridge to record better wind. During the recording he spots a car careening through a guard rail and into the river, which causes Jack to spring into action as he dives into the water and saves the young woman in the vehicle, though he couldn’t save the male driver. Later in the hospital, Jack discovers that the man driving the car was the governor, and a major presidential candidate, which only further instigates his curiosity. The woman he saved, Sally (Nancy Allen), is far more involved in the death of the governor than either he or she knew at the time. After several more inconsistencies are reported in the news Jack grabs his recording of the night and goes to work in analyzing the audio. The film has some excellent tension throughout, but some of my favorite sequences were due to John Lithgow’s performance as Burke. He’s a cold and analytical killer that takes liberties with his orders from those pulling the strings in the background. This was a surprising one for me, I do appreciate Brian De Palma’s work on the whole, but this felt unique among his other films. It’s a quieter movie than most of his work, and it’s incredibly cerebral. Certainly it was an excellent performance from Travolta, one of his finer dramatic works in my opinion. If you’re looking for some tense murder mystery stuff with a conspiratorial flair, this might be your ticket to an entertaining evening! I’d pair this with Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” for an excellent double feature of analog audio based thrillers! Below I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film, as always, his film analysis speaks for itself.
Both films were written and directed by Jackie Chan, “Police Story” and its sequel are some of the most quintessential Jackie Chan Action films. Set and filmed in Hong Kong, these blockbluster hits confirmed Jackie Chan’s superstardom worldwide. Jackie stars as Police Inspector Ka-kui, a man with highly unorthodox methods of policing. If you’re looking for something light-hearted, but with blistering action sequences, you can’t do much better than these two films. The plots have somewhat typical machinations within the police procedural genre- but played with completely unique flair and tenacity. The first film opens with Chan and his peers tackling a raid on suspected drug dealers. It’s a hell of an action packed opening and one that perfectly sets up the rest of this film and it’s (somehow) crazier sequel. These films are exquisite in their precision of action performed onscreen, but they’re also goofy as hell, charming, cheeky and full of heart and wit. The soundtrack is eighties as hell and jam-packed with heart pounding electric audio! I highly recommend both films, they are two of my absolute favorites and a great time in my opinion. Below I’ve (again) linked a popular YouTube video essay that I encourage you to watch if you haven’t seen it, it’s a delightful analysis of how Jackie rises above his peers in action comedy.
Man of The West (1958)
Written by Reginald Rose and directed by Anthony Mann, “Man of The West” is part of Criterion Channel’s “Western Noir” collection introduced recently on the streaming service. Accompanying ten other similarly grim tales from the frontier, this film was part of a trend after World War Two wherein the morality of our lead characters aren’t as clean or unmarred as previously depicted, especially within the Western genre. The film begins with a generally upbeat and sunny disposition with a middle-aged man, generally keeping a low profile, taking a train to Fort Worth to find a school teacher for his town called “Good Hope”, just west of the area. Guarding a bag of funds, Link Jones (Gary Cooper) is met on the train by talkative gambling grifter Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell). After hearing Link’s story, Beasley recommends fellow traveler and former saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) for the position. Things go awry when the train is robbed resulting in these three passengers being abandoned on the side of the tracks in the middle of nowhere. After getting his bearings, Link realizes that he does know of a small house nearby that they might be able to take refuge in for a short while. Unfortunately for them, the house is occupied. As it turns out, Link’s former gang still resides in their old hideout, and it results in him having to “perform” his old gangster persona for the gang while trying to keep Billie and Beasley alive and unharmed. Link’s old gang is full of awful, brash, and revolting men who ensnare the trio and essentially force Link into helping infamous criminal and gang leader Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) realize his longstanding dream of robbing a bank that supposedly houses a ridiculous amount of money. There’s a lot of the story elements in this film that I suspect helped to inspire the story of “Red Dead Redemption Two” and it’s predecessor. A man years removed from his life of crime and regret is reinserted in that life and must confront his past, with a particularly ideological leader that has waned in competency in recent years. The film was an entertainingly dark turn for Westerns in the 1950’s, plenty of good cathartic violence, eerie tension, and satisfying shootouts as a man is forced to combat his former family.
NEXT TIME ON RAPID FIRE REVIEWS:
As previously mentioned, I’ve already begun watching and writing about an incredibly diverse selection of VHS tapes. Sixteen movies divided into four categories of four films each; Westerns, Summer Blockbusters, Science Fiction, and Thrillers filled with Mystery! Until next time!
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, “Army of Shadows” is adapted from a book with the same title by Joseph Kessel which details some of Kessel’s involvement in the French Resistance during World War Two. Though some characters in both the book and this film adaption are fictionalized versions of real life resistance fighters, the film is meant to be be less of a realized adaption of real life events and more of an expression of the mindset of those living a life of resistance under Nazi controlled France. Which, I feel, is crucial information for any analysis of this film. Interestingly, the film wasn’t well received in France during it’s release as the public view of Charles de Gaulle had shifted dramatically since the second World War. It was also denied an American distribution due to the rather grisly content of the film (for the time anyway), and wasn’t released in the United States in any form for thirty-seven years until 2006.
“Army of Shadows” deals in the suspense of terror in every day encounters. The film follows a small group of resistance members as they attempt to send and receive pertinent information, supplies, and logistics between themselves and a few trusted individuals in the allied forces. However, while the stakes for the characters is always high, the film does not encourage larger than life displays of defiance, but rather playing out small moments in which decisions are made or abandoned that carry the weight of survival or death. A perfect example of this is when Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier (a major contributor to the cause during the resistance) escapes a Gestapo prison in France in the first half of the film, Gerbier convinces another captive to rush a German guard, and they both make a break for it, parting ways once hitting the street. Gerbier darts into a barbershop late at night and asks to have his moustache shaved off- the barber mutely acknowledges Gerbier’s suspect request and after he’s done, he denies Gerbier’s money and instead offers him a remarketedly different overcoat instead. It’s a tense, terse, and quiet scene, one that effectively captures the mood of the film as a whole. The minimalism that was so effective in “Le Samouraï” is expanded upon in this film, and used to emphasize the airy, spacious, nightmare that occupies the locations and sets used in the film, but its also, ironically, the claustrophobic inverse for the headspace of the characters that we’re following.
Speaking of the cast, it’s an excellent mixture of returning Melville favorites like Lino Ventura as the lead, Philippe Gerbier, or Paul Meurisse as Luc Jardie, secretly the true leader of the French resistance. Which is a fun turn of events as the actors were enemies last time around in “Le Deuxième Souffle” with Meurisse portraying ‘Inspector Blot’. The other notable standout is Simone Signoret as Mathilde, a wife and mother whose family knows nothing of her involvement in the resistance. Mathilde not only specializes in elaborate costumes, but helped to design intricate operations for the resistance. Memorably, she organized an effort to rescue fellow resistance member Felix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet) from a maximum security prison in Lyon. Mathilde, along with ‘Le Masque’ (Claude Mann) and ‘Le Bison’ (Christian Barbier), dressed as a German nurse and her two bodyguards accompanying her to attempt to transport Lepercq to a different facility due to his extremely poor condition. Though when a German doctor denies him passage and labels him ‘unfit for transport’, Mathilde must stay in character in that moment and accept the decision, comitting to ‘file a report about that’ and then leaving on the spot. To push the subject or to let her face betray her mission at this news would threaten not just her life, but those of ‘Le Masque’ and ‘Le Bison’ as well. What shocked me in the film was the level of commitment that the resistance members swore to- its definitely a situation where hard decisions had to be made, but the atmosphere and casual tone among resistance members who agreed to kill any informers from the inside out was… in truth, very in line with Melville’s cold and analytical nature in previous films. I suppose it was the more intimate nature of the way they had to kill their informer that got me, they had secured an abandoned house to do the deed in- but neighbors had noisily moved in the night before, so no guns. They decide to use a knife, but no one has a knife. What to do? Strangulation it is! The camera does not cut away from the informer, in fact, the frame focuses on the young man as we watch the life leave his eyes. It cements the fact that this is not an easy life, it’s a hard, depressing, and violent one.
While this isn’t my favorite Melville film so far, it’s a unique one that should be seen if you’re a student of film or history, or both. Melville’s ‘tough guy’ noirs will always capture my imagination more than this film did- but the imagery and atmosphere is one I will remember for a long time. If you’ve run out of conventional World War Two films, I highly suggest checking this one out, because while it focuses on people and events that took place during the war, it’s not really a war film. Expand your horizons, and give this one a watch!
Final Score: 1 Submarine
*Below is Roger Ebert’s review of the film and a deeper dive into Melville’s work as a whole, I encourage you to check it out!
Written by Auguste Le Breton, and Jean-Pierre Melville and directed by Melville, “Bob le Flambeur” is a French noir film from the oft described Godfather of the infamous New Wave filmmakers who would burst onto the scene with radical new filmmaking techniques in just a few short years. Most of the French films I have seen at this point haven’t quite connected with me as much as I had expected, or even hoped for. That changes with this film however. Recently I noticed that a bunch of Jean-Pierre Melville movies were set to leave the Criterion Collection’s streaming service at the end of February, and I had been meaning to check them out. There’s nothing like a fast approaching deadline to give you a sense of focus. I must say that I loved this film, and I cannot wait to run through more of Melville’s filmography. “Bob le Flambeur” follows Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne), a former Parisian gangster before the war, and now a well known gambler among the many nightclubs and bars of the night life in Paris. Even the cops know Bob, a man of honor and luck, he once saved the life of the local inspector (Guy Decomble) and they forged a long friendship. The owner of the corner bar, Yvonne (Simone Paris), bought the place with a loan from Bob, and with it her loyalty to him. And then there’s Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an eager young man who hangs around, as his father was a great friend of Bob’s. We get most of our information about Bob by the way people greet and react to his presence and how they speak about Bob when he’s around and when he’s not.
We follow Bob as he moves from room to room throughout the latest hours of the night and the earliest of the morning, as the narration by Melville informs us “in those moments, between night and day … between heaven and hell.” He ends up losing most of his remaining funds, in fact throughout the whole first act Bob never seems to win at all. It isn’t until he hears about a potential heist with a score big enough to offset the risks that he begins to win at games of chance. It is here that a refresher on French vocabularly might be worthwhile; The word being “Flamber” (verb): To wager not only the money you have, but the money you don’t have. This is the epitome of who Bob is at his core. He is a gambler through and through, always rolling dice, flipping coins, and pulling the levers on a slot machine. Risk and chance are the fuel of his existence. Which is why the old gangster perks up when a friend mentions that the safe in the Casino in Deauville occasionally holds extraordinary amounts of money. They quickly begin to assess the situation and start gathering a crew of people with the essential skills and connections that could allow them to pull off this feat. It’s here that movies involving heists over the next fifty plus years have looked back upon for inspiration in the examination of a heist’s plan. Melville was aware enough of the conventions of the genre and chose to have his criminals forgo the usual charts and blueprints used to elaborate on the specifics of the plan. Instead, Melville had his crew go to detailed lengths to plan out their heist by spraying the outlines of the casino’s floorplans on an empty field and having his men walk through the steps. They also get some reconnaissance by driving around the Casino’s walls and having one of the crew accurately sketch the outlines and specific features of the building. They hire an expert safe cracker and acquire an exact replica of the safe they have to crack for practice. Which is all well and good, but I must direct your attention to the side characters who are all given adequate background information and motivations for their choices within the film. First, there’s Anne (Isabelle Corey), a young woman on the verge of falling into the clutches of the many pimps on the streets of Paris. Bob hates pimps, and he goes out of his way to make it known to Marc (Gérard Buhr), a down on his luck former gangster-turned-pimp early in the film. Unfortunately for Bob, Marc’s also dogged by the cops who will let him slide on smaller infractions if he gets them some good insider information from the criminal underworld of Paris. Anne floats around from Bob’s place (he allows her to stay if she has nowhere else to go), to several career paths, into and out of the lovesick arms of poor Paulo, and eventually back to Marc- who is denied her business as a prostitute, but given all too valuable information by accident.
In the end, Bob gets comepletely sidetracked by gambling at the casino. He almost forgets his schedule entirely, but runs out of the tables and into a gunfight. While he earned himself extraordinary wealth, he also missed the worst of the violence and gets there just in time to catch Paulo as he dies in his arms. Tragedy, sparked by an optimistic and oddly cynical note that by becoming so wealthy that he may avoid all jail time with the right lawyer for the right price. It’s one of those eternal ironies that comes through in the third act that adds just the right mix of cinematic magic to the whole affair, you see, Bob had promised his first partner in the scheme that he wouldn’t gamble until after the job had been done, but the allure of the casino was just too much for him. It’s just his nature, as the film likes to remind us. Beyond the plot, the cinematography caught me as something almost mythic in certain shots. That may seem strong, but the farther we get from the black and white films of the twentieth century, the closer that time feels to becoming as large and impenetrable in the cultural zeitgeist as say, the American West in the 1800’s. Maybe it’s just me, but I also love it when a film’s lead character travels through an environment and becomes dwarfed by the landscape, be it man-made skyscrapers or small towns, or natural like trees or mountains. Putting man on the scale of the world in your framing makes humanity seem small in comparison to the world around it- but it makes our acomplishments that much more powerful too.
If you’re looking for some good old school noir and are willing to read subtitles, I highly suggest checking this one out. For fun, try to spot all the people who aren’t smoking onscreen- once you notice it, it’s hard to miss the massive amount of people and time that smoking takes up onscreen. Otherwise, look forward to some more reviews on the films from Jean-Pierre Melville. ‘Til next time film nerds!
This year for the Christmas season I decided to try something a little different. Recently, I realized that the movie series I’ve been watching in my free time, “Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman”, had exactly 25 installments. So, instead of reviewing Christmas movies, well known or otherwise, I figured I’d write up a short review for each film in the 25 days leading up to Christmas. This format will be slightly different from my free form reviews where I discuss anything within a film that I found to be particularly fascinating. It will be similar to that style, but a bit more regimented. I’ll chunk each short review into a few categories; the writer and director of each film will be highlighted alongside a count of how many films within the series that any particular writer or director has worked on (at that point in time) given that there are repeats across the 25 films. There will also be a quick summary that goes over the specifics of the film- but as I’ve been watching the films I’ve noticed that there’s a bit of a formula at hand so there may not be as much analysis as there would be with any one singular film (but I haven’t finished the series as of this point and am open to being wrong about that for the series as a whole). *The character of Zatoichi was adapted by the work of Japanese novelist Kan Shimozawa*
Writer/Director: Minoru Inuzuka/Kenji Misumi
Summary: Starring Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi, this first film in the Blind Swordsman’s Samurai saga expertly lays the foundation of the character’s personality, skillset, and morality that will guide future filmmakers and writers with a winning formula. In his first story, Zatoichi happens upon two neighboring villages on the precipice of war, with tensions high and about to boil over. Ichi (as he’s referred to non-formally) is quickly hired by one of the Yakuza gangs, while the other side quickly does the same in hiring a skilled ronin of their own. As the war brews in the background Ichi spends his time fishing- ironically with Hirate, the other ronin the rival Yakuza gang has hired, and they strike up a fast friendship. Ichi also happens to get involved with a little Romeo and Juliet scenario involving Otane, a young woman growing increasingly weary of the Yakuza lifestyle, and her lover from the rival gang. Eventually when the war comes, Zatoichi discovers that his friend Hirate is dying of Tuberculosis, and wishes to die in battle with a worthy foe. Hirate, having found his faction’s secret weapon to be a rifle they planned to shoot Zatoichi with, commits to fight to the death for his honor. After the war between the Yakuza gangs dissolves Otane gives her consent of marriage to Zatoichi- but he denies her, feeling too much shame for his way of life and stature in society and wanders off having discovered a profound sadness in killing a friend and destroying a love he could not accept.
My favorite part: I’ve always enjoyed the notion of two highly skilled warriors earning each other’s respect through sheer skill alone. This is a recurring motif that the series will continue to mine throughout future installments. Its an aspect that’s especially common among Japanese anime and manga, and two of my favorite anime “One Punch Man” and “DragonBall Z” lean into this notion constantly. There’s something exciting about seeing previously reserved characters come alive at the possibility of a “real fight” with someone of equal or greater skill- especially when they’re consumed by reckless abandon and their former allegiances are tossed aside for a taste of greatness in battle. Fun stuff!
Why it’s great: This first Zatoichi film, one of the two black and white films in the saga, is great due to the sum of it’s parts. Everything that’s great about the series can be traced back to this core. Zatoichi may be a wandering blind masseur, a lowly social status in Japan’s Edo period, but he uses his impediments to his advantage and fights that much harder and faster because of them. His code of honor is tranquil, but true. He doesn’t want to kill anyone, but he will stand up for himself and others when abuse and neglect are in play. His humility and guilt over his own actions and of society as a whole build into the series’ inherent sadness at the state of humanity at large. Many, but not all, of the films end with Zatoichi wandering off into the distance as he both literally and figuratively distances himself from the people he’s helped and hurt- staying would only create more harm, more pain.
Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, and directed by Ozu, “Tokyo Story” is seemingly a simple family drama about an older couple traveling to visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking such of an arthouse film, but you’d be wrong in this case. In essence that is the skeleton of the film, yes, but beneath the initial layer lies a story about family and how time can erode once strong connections. It is about how parents can lose their place in their family’s hierarchy. How work and modernization can manipulate and destroy family in subtle ways. Mostly though, it is about the bittersweet heartbreak of growing old and losing touch with those closest to you.
When Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), the grandfather, and Tomi (Chiyeko Higashiyama) the grandmother, arrive in Tokyo they’re welcomed by a busy family. They spend the first few days with their oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura) a doctor in a small local clinic. He is married to Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), and they have two sons. After meeting their grandchildren and hanging out about the house (Not many adults have the time away from work to take them sightseeing) they head to Koichi’s sister, Shige’s (Haruko Sugimura) home. Shige is also married and runs a beauty salon in the first floor of their abode. The family members mean well, and make several attempts to entertain their elders, sightseeing some and buying them treats (though Shige protests at her husband for buying such expensive cakes- they eat most of them before presenting the gift). At a lack of finding things for Shukichi and Tomi to do the married couples recruit Noriko (Setsuko Hara) their widowed daughter-in-law who hasn’t yet remarried since the war. Noriko is more than happy to help, even though she isn’t a blood relative and has the least stature among the adult children of Shukichi and Tomi.
They try not to burden any of the family while they are in Tokyo, but it becomes clear after some time that they are simply too busy to accommodate them. After a failed trip to a resort spa outside of Tokyo, paid for by Shige’s family, Shukichi and Tomi decide to head home. They linger about for a bit, trying not to offend anyone for having left the spa early, which isn’t why they came to Tokyo in the first place. After a night out with Shkichi’s old village friends now residing in Tokyo, and Tomi having a profound evening with Noriko- they depart for home. Shortly after having returned home, Tomi falls gravely ill and the children begin to make the journey home for their dying mother. It is a beautiful and tragic sequence of scenes for the last half hour of the film, Shukichi veiling his grief with blank expressions and the children all commingling their grief and true feelings about their parents- it’s a lot, and if you can make it through the end with dry eyes, I honestly don’t know what would move you to tears in cinema.
The story, however, is only one slice of what makes this film so memorable and potent. Yasujiro Ozu’s technique behind the camera accounts for much of the dreamlike quality of the film. His cinematography and framing choices seem unique in how he utilizes them. He doesn’t always adhere to the eyeline rule, characters can seem as if they aren’t looking at each other as they speak, but he cares not. His style doesn’t sacrifice spacial or auditory understanding in the least, it enhances it. Ozu often frames two people sitting side by side, facing away from the camera, which gives the audience an almost ghostly viewpoint of the dialogue. It’s in this pairing of those faraway, unconcerned, shots of conversation with his low angle mid-shots of the actors directly facing the camera that Ozu’s style emerges as one both heavily invested in what his characters have to say, but also of the world they inhabit. Many scenes are bookended with “pillow shots” (relating to a similar technique in Japanese poetry); beautiful compositions of elaborate cityscapes, simple architecture, trains chugging along, or boats cruising along the coast in the background that bind the characters to their place and time so beautifully.
Inherently relatable and elegantly true to life, “Tokyo Story” was a joy to discover. I cannot recommend it enough, I found it (as with most older films lately) on the Criterion Channel, and with it a new filmography to plumb. Test new waters, take a chance and maybe you’ll find a new favorite film or filmmaker, I know I have.
Final Score: 4 adult children, 2 grandchildren, and 1 heartbroken old man..
*To further inform you on the humble perfection of this film, I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film below:
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto and directed by Kihachi Okamoto, “The Sword of Doom” is an existential samurai film that dwells on a titular character that isn’t exactly altruistic, to say the least. This is, essentially, the story of a villain. A Samurai with a unique style, long lost from any traces of morality, Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) spends the majority of the film brooding and sulking about until he bursts with a flurry of violence. Don’t fret, this film most assuredly lives up to its pulpy title. Ryunosuke appears suddenly in the opening scene when he happens upon an old man praying for death so that his granddaughter would not be burdened by his increasing fragility. He swiftly grants his elder’s wish and moves along nonchalantly. Our protagonist is almost more of a singular force set upon the world than a human character, a skilled swordsman with a thirst for violence.
Early on in the film Ryunosuke’s father, who disproves of the psychopathic Samurai’s technique, pleads with his son to purposefully lose an upcoming fencing match. His opponent’s wife, Hama (Michiyo Aratama) also urges him to concede and throw the match against Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichirô Nakatani). Ryunosuke agrees on one condition, that Hama sleep with him before the match. Hama agrees, though Bunnojo discovers the infidelity before the match’s start and has made the clash a far more personal affair. After the fight is considered a draw Bunnojo lunges for a kill shot, but Ryunosuke’s entire style leans into this tactic, lying in wait for his opponent to strike with his eyes and sword leisurely cast aside. After Bunnojo is slain Ryunosuke and Hama are run out of town and the film cuts to an unspecified jump in time.
A few years later, roughly, Hama and Ryunosuke are married and considering returning to their village. Ryunosuke’s a sake drunk and Hama is resentful of her husband and her situation in life. Ryunosuke hears of rumors that Bunnojo’s brother Hyoma (Yûzô Kayama) is seeking vengeance, so he does a bit of research. What he doesn’t know is that his father urged Hyoma to train under master fencer Shimada (Toshirô Mifune), to wipe the shame of Ryunosuke’s actions from his family’s name. I won’t go into an excessive amount of detail on every plot point, but that is the skeletal framework essential to understanding the film. “The Sword of Doom” harbors a dense and nightmarish atmosphere that is used to great effect. The cinematography and blocking of the actors is magnificient and alleviates any stress that the admittedly convulted plot contributes to. The remainder of the film has some of the best Samurai action I’ve seen in films (so far), and Ryunosuke’s descent into existential paranoia is an excellent departure from his stoic confidence earlier in the film. Though my favorite scene of the whole film is when Ryunosuke witnesses Shimada’s expertise in killing an onslaught of attackers on a wintry night- his skill is enough to shake the soul of the morally corrupt Samurai. Aside from the Kurosawa films in which these two actors frequently come to blows, “The Sword of Doom” takes a different route, the two iconic Samurai actors never cross blades. Though Ryunosuke is profoundly affected by seeing the superior’s swordsman’s technique in action.
This was the final Criterion Collection film that I picked up through a sale they had recently, and it was worth every penny. The Criterion Collection does an excellent job with their film restoration. They clean up the audio and frames of film of any static or dirt and allow the full vision of the original filmmakers to shine through. Criterion commits to a commendable standard of quality that I personally highly value and I cannot recommend them enough. If you’re in need of a good Samurai film and have exhausted the library of Kurosawa, then this is a fine film to sate your katana brandishing needs.
Written by Jim Thompson and Stanley Kubrick and directed by Kubrick, “The Killing” is a noir heist movie that follows a gang of criminals poised to rob a racetrack during a high-stakes horse race with a large sum of cash in play. Last week the Criterion Collection had a sale on their stock of films so I took the opportunity and found a few new curiosities. Stanley Kubrick has always been a fascinating film director, but I haven’t always loved his films. Thus, I take every chance I can get when it comes to finding more of his work so I can form a more complete picture of the man’s filmography. I had never heard of “The Killing” and a Kubrick, Noir, Heist film was too tantalizing to avoid. I likely hadn’t heard of the film because it was only Kubrick’s third full length film release, but he considered this one to be his first mature feature.
The main force propelling the plot along is Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden), the architect of the heist and the only one that knows all of the moving parts of the plan. Johnny gathered this gang of desperate and foolish rogues through well researched intel and earned trust. George Peatty (Elisha Cook Jr.) and Mike O’Reilly (Joe Sawyer) work at the track as a teller and bartender respectively. Both are in need of funds for their women at home, though each for vastly different reasons. Maurice Oboukhoff (Kola Kwariani) and Nikki Arcane (Timothy Carey), a chess playing strongman and a farmer who’s a crack shot with a rifle, are the two major diversions designed to create chaos and panic during the heist as Johnny palms the bills in the back during all of the confusion. There’s also Leo the loan shark (Jay Adler) and the poor schmuck of a cop Randy Kennan (Ted de Corsia) that got in deep debt due to Leo’s high interest rates. Together, these criminals attempted to forge a fool-proof heist in the hopes of netting a cool two million dollars for their troubles.
The film has a methodical nature to its layout, the audience simply isn’t involved in all of the details until the heist is in play. The writing, editing, and narration (which was a fountain of nostalgia laced with a fond notion of the simpler times in film) all work in tandem of executing the most tension within each scene as the film glides through its runtime. We meet the cast of characters well before knowing their exact roles in the heist, figuring out how all of the pieces fall into place was half of the fun of the film anyways. Johnny’s entire plan is based on the exact schedule of events and the knowledge that each member is executing their role at the planned time, without flaw. Thus once we get near the event we backtrack to various members and their roles as they execute them. The film was far more suspenseful than expected with this technique, it keeps you guessing as to where or when the gang will foul up their plan, because once we meet enough of the players and get a peek into a select few’s personal lives- it becomes clear that the plan will fail at some point.
I won’t spoil the fun for you by ruining the film’s third act, but I will give it a hearty recommendation. If you’re hankerin’ for a fun old school heist flick, give this one a shot! It’s only about an hour and twenty minutes, and an excellent way to kill the moody blues of a rainy afternoon.
Final Score: 2 Million dreams of the crooked and the desperate