Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Twenty

20 drunken

#20 — Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

One of film history’s most amazing partnerships between director and actor begins here. Akira Kurosawa cast Toshiro Mifune sixteen times over a span of fewer than twenty years, making the actor feel like the great director’s manifestation of self on screen, in much the same way that Martin Scorsese once admitted he cast Robert De Niro repeatedly in the parts he himself would like to play (presumably Leonardo DiCaprio has fulfilled much the same role in recent years). It could, however, be even simpler than that. Drunken Angel so fully takes advantage of Mifune’s colossal charisma that it’s not hard to imagine Kurosawa studying the film right down to individual frames and deciding he had stumbled upon a rare force of nature who would endless reward anyone wise enough to train the camera on him.

Unlike Kurosawa’s famed samurai epics, Drunken Angel is basically a contemporary affair. The film takes place shortly after the war, as a low-level gangster (Mifune) seeks emergency treatment from a boozy doctor (Takashi Shimura) following a gun battle. Besides attending to the immediate wound, the doctor determines the thug has contracted tuberculosis, setting up an enduring, uneasy relationship as continuing treatment takes place. There are further complications, of course, involving returning threats and women under duress, but the bulk of the film’s conflict arises between the two men at its center, engaged in verbal skirmishes about how to live life. Their interactions are often barbed, sometimes strangely affectionate and admiring. Throughout the film, the heavy drama that bubbles up is always grounded by the tenuous bond between that twosome, which Kurosawa presents with intuitive cunning.

It’s fascinating enough to consider the film as the beginning of a key cinematic partnership or as an early entry in one of the storied directorial careers in the history of the medium (it was Kurosawa’s seventh film and he’s only been directing for about five years). One of the most striking elements of Drunken Angel is its edgy, oblique reflection of Japan in the immediate post-War years. Kurosawa managed to slip in sly references to topics that were effectively forbidden the censorship board in place at the time, especially regarding U.S. occupation of the defeated nation. Even without a bookish understanding of every detail Kurosawa sneakily introduces into the film, there’s a quivering energy of mischievous accomplishment that’s ever-present. Some of that can certainly be attributed to the spark of claimed freedom, but it’s tempting to see it as something more, something that speaks to a context formulated by all that would come in the future. Maybe it’s the splendid friction of genius emerging.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Five

#5 — Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
A story about the making of Rashomon insists that the actors were regularly asking director Akira Kurosawa to divulge the “official” version of the story they were telling in the film. That likely went beyond a general curiosity. Since the film centers on the sharing of multiple, tellingly divergent versions of an encounter in the woods that left a samurai (Masayuki Mori) dead, the actors had some rationale for wanting to know what was truth and what was fiction in shaping their performances. Kurosawa never shared any real version of events, instead noting that a single truth represented the exact opposite of the film’s point. Indeed, the overwhelming takeaway of Rashomon isn’t that people conceal the truth to serve their own needs, but that the truth is entirely shaped by each individual, on the basis of whatever those needs may be. It’s likely that every storyteller fully believes their own recounting, the contradictions only evidence of the fallibility of others. There is no puzzle to be unlocked, no definitive answers at the back of the book. Everyone is wrong and so very very certain they are right.

Like the Shakespearean works Kurosawa repeatedly returned to for inspiration, Rashomon is brilliant because of the way it transforms the base psychology of human beings into insightful drama. Without turning his film into a purely intellectual exercise — the passionate performances of Toshiro Mifune (as a bandit who is a key player in the tale) and Machiko Kyō (as the samurai’s wife) nearly see to that through sheer force — Kurosawa creates something that meticulously explores the very nature of perception and honesty. In a way, it becomes a stand-in for filmmaking, as each of four characters (including the deceased samurai, communicating through a medium, played by Noriko Honma) takes their turn, they naturally finesse and embellish. There is an inherent, instinctive desire to persuade that takes over so completely that it builds its own opaque wall against the past. It becomes an expression of self rather than mere reportage. Similarly, the work of Kurosawa and other directors is about reformulating a story, usually investing it with personal passions, until it feels intensely right, more truthful than truth.

As usual with Kurosawa, the film is built with fascinating and subtle technique. Working with cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, Kurosawa is extremely deliberate about the pacing of the film, down to the length of individual shots and the dynamics of edited segments. Kurosawa isn’t trying to tilt the film in one direction or another. Quite the opposite, most of the choices are intended to level the stories, creating parallels between the different versions that make them echoes instead of contradictions. It adds another level of mastery onto the film. If there’s no certainty in the shifting fiction of the film, there’s plenty in the creative process. This was still fairly early in Kurosawa’s long, storied career, released less than a decade after his debut. There’s no hesitancy to it, though. Kurosawa already had fully command of his art and his craft. He knew that he had many charges as a filmmaker. Providing a solid, unmovable answer was not necessarily one of them.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twelve

#12 — Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
Apparently, the official translation of the original Japanese title of Akira Kurosawa’s revisioning of Macbeth is Spider Web Castle. This isn’t purely metaphor, since the game of thrones being played in the film centers on a castle in an area termed Spider’s Web forest. Along with the worldwide English language title, Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s take on one of William Shakespeare’s paragon works is blessed with an embarrassment of cool monikers. Of course, since this is one of the true masters of cinema grappling with one of the greatest dramas in history, the title card represents the least of the film’s accomplishments.

Among the many other superlatives that can be affixed to Kurosawa, he was one cinema’s foremost interpreters of Shakespeare, at least on a par with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. That’s largely because he was indeed an interpreter, scraping away at the core humanity of the plays he took on, finding the universal truth that could be transposed from the deep history of the United Kingdom to his own homeland. In the case of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa in on the especially familiar ground of feudal Japan. The Scottish soldiers are now Samurai, and Kurosawa mainstay Toshiro Mifune is the brave warrior who is spurred to a devastating lust of power by a mystical prediction and the urging of an ambitious wife (Isuzu Yamada). In Kurosawa’s hands (he also wrote the screenplay with three credited collaborators), the already vast, powerful play soars to even more grandiose heights. Forging legends is seemingly second nature to Kurosawa, the muscular force of his storytelling combining with eerie, spectral imagery to to make it feel like the storied past manifested as a fever dream.

Though I premised this review largely on the notion that Kurosawa is fully prepared to carry the text of Shakespeare wherever his own muse may lead, Throne of Blood is fully recognizable as the Bard’s work. Even so, the film’s authorship can only be assigned to one man. Kurosawa’s incredible skill as a filmmaker comes through consistently, maybe most notably in his nearly unparalleled ability to make high emotion that borders on histrionics feel weirdly intimate and real. Mifune rages at the screen, and yet the film manages to reinforce one of the piercing paradoxes of the play, that the lead character’s oversized ambition is mostly indicative of the smallness of the man, a crumpled interior that makes him susceptible to the whims and passions of others. Within the vastness and boldness, Kurosawa creates nuance. Along with the name noted above, the film had yet another title in Finland, used upon a reissue release. It is Kurosawan Macbeth. That’s perfect, too. It might even be the most telling, exciting title of all.

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Nineteen

#19 — Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
Seven Samurai is an unassuming epic. It may seem a strange description for the three hour tale of a band of misfit warriors recruited by a desperate rural town to stand up to the bandits who plan to raid their food supply. This is arguably Akira Kurosawa’s most famous creation, the one that inspired a legion of other filmmakers, some directly (John Sturges’s acknowledged remake with The Magnificent Seven, John Lasseter and Pixar’s sly appropriation with A Bug’s Life) and countless more indirectly (George Lucas owes his billions to the many ways he lifted from Kurosawa for the Star Wars films). Its running time indicates the sort of scale that belies modesty. The sheer amount of story, of characters, of incidents all suggest a filmmaker of great ambition, one who is sketching out a cinematic adventure meant to stagger the viewer. And yet Seven Samurai doesn’t play that way. It lacks the sterling import of David Lean’s grand dramas or the shuddering grandiosity of the biblical sagas that were the norm for the era (Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments arrived in theaters two years later). Seven Samurai impresses not with its vastness, but with the tender intricacy of the work. At every moment, Kurosawa concentrates on the tiny details of the story — the characters, the motivation, the raggedness of a rough society. It’s only the accumulation of all these small details, a process that happens with the greatest of patience, that makes Seven Samurai big.

The threat of inflated rhetoric is also quelled by Kurosawa’s carefully consideration of the ravages of massive conflict. While incorporating battle sequences of physical vitality muscular enough to stir and then sate the urgent needs of any action film fan, Kurosawa and his collaborators take time to grimly assess the scorched earth after the aggravated flames have recede. The cost of confrontation shadows the film. There may be good guys and there are bad guys, but their swords don’t deliver damage in different ways. The separation between the nobility of battle and the futility of war is no separation at all. Either way, there is blood on the ground. Kurosawa doesn’t dwell on this or pound it into the viewer in didactic fashion. It is simply another part of his intellectual thesis, presented with an egalitarian compassion for all points of view. That evenhandedness, he seems to argue, is the only proper way to consider the rigors of a complicated world.

Kurosawa’s favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune, is present in a vividly juicy role, playing a passionate, unpredictable samurai anxious to prove himself given his suspect credentials when he joins the band of brothers. In keeping with the breadth of inclusion found in the title, Kurosawa refutes any temptation he may have felt to turn into a one-man showcase. In fact, Mifune’s character was a relatively late invention, an attempt to create a strident counterpoint to his half dozen compatriots, all of whom are more staid. Representing a fairly basic technique in shaping the dynamics of the narrative, the choice also reveals the film’s splendid interconnectedness. Rather than leads and supporting characters, Seven Samurai comes remarkably close to telling a story in which every person is central. The villagers carry as much narrative weight as the bandits, and the swordsmen-for-hire of the title don’t necessarily usurp anyone else. Seven Samurai effectively adheres to the adage that everyone is the star of their own drama. Of course, as with almost every film that bears his signature, the truest star of Seven Samurai is the artist in the director’s chair.

From the Archive: Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

According to the gimmicky title scrawled across the top of my radio script (“Reel Thing V: The Final Frontier”), this review was featured in the fifth episode of our weekly movie review program. This was clearly a week in which our modest college town didn’t get very many new films, necessitating a trip to Madison to catch art film screenings there. I’d barely seen any Akira Kurosawa films by this point (probably only Ran, and I may not have even seen that yet), a highly inconvenient fact I tried to cover up in the writing process with only the most passive reference to the history of wondrous cinema he carried into this effort. I was, to put it plainly, a little out of my depth in writing about the film.

Many of us are fascinated by our dreams. A person you can apparently count among that group is the internationally acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. In fact, he’s so fascinated by his dreams that he chose to devote several of them to film, and that produced the film with the very appropriate title Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. Dreams is really a collection of eight short films that each take their reference point from one of Kurosawa’s dreams, each segment having its own focus, feel, and direction. It’s sort of the filmmaking equivalent of a book collecting several new short works of a well-known author. Since each dream has its own focus, each part much succeed or fail on its own merits, and, as one would expect, some fare better than others. Some like “The Blizzard,” which follows a group of mountain climbers on a treacherous journey through a terrible blizzard, and “The Weeping Demon,” an uninventive look at a post-holocaust world, are simply uninteresting pieces of work which become too mired in their strange sense of self-importance to really capture the imagination. Many are also simply forgettable, nice images to look at for a while, but nothing that you’ll retain for too long. When the sequences work, though, they work marvelously. The first dream, entitled “Sunshine Through the Rain,” gives us a young boy viewing the forbidden sights the forest holds during a rainstorm. His innocent curiosity as he views this fascinating and oddly frightening scene rubs off and the entire segment is captivating. Other notables include “Crows,” featuring Martin Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh as Kurosawa guides us through the wonder creations of van Gogh’s mind. Also the segment that closes the film, entitled “Village of the Waterwheels,” lends praise to simplicity and naturalness of life through the eyes and words of a terrifically wise storyteller. The images and magic Kurosawa creates in these segments are easily enough to counterbalance the moments of the film that drag or misfire. (3 stars, out of 4)

Frears, Kurosawa, Robson, Sturges, Taylor

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954). I sometimes identify Akira Kurosawa’s Ran as epic filmmaking writ as large as the screen allows. Seven Samurai, made over thirty years earlier, is epic filmmaking in the inverse, pruned and delicate and piercingly intimate. There are major moments to it, too, and scenes of pounding cinematic glory, but what really makes it work is the painstaking intricacy of Kurosawa’s storytelling. There’s a reason other creators return to it time and again, extracting what is useful for their own tales of valor and ironic victory. Kurosawa and his collaborators (Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni are co-credited on the screenplay) find unfussy human truths in the story of a band of hired swordsman pulled together to protect an impoverished farm community from bandits who return like perennial crops, not least is the way that the honor of a just cause and the futility of war are often indiscernibly similar. This is especially true when the conflict starts to recede into the past, leaving only the damaged survivors to weigh the worthiness of what they’ve endured.

Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, 1940). The second film directed by Preston Sturges feels like the product of a filmmaker still coming into his own. The story hinges on a perpetual dreamer’s belief that he has won a contest to pick the new slogan for a coffee company, thanks largely to a cluster of boorish coworkers pulling a prank. The comedy arises from the pile-up of misunderstandings that follow, all in the manner of classic screwball comedy but lacking some of the snap that makes it one of Hollywood’s greatest genres. It’s a funny notion that Sturges never quite develops into the pointed societal observation that marks his most brilliant work. Instead, it’s little more than a nice diversion, about as peppy and insignificant as a ineffective radio jingle.

Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013). I find it remarkable that Marvel Comics’ Thor is the focus of a major film franchise (not until the second wave of Marvel films arrive with the likes of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man will more unlikely heroes grace the screen), especially given that the films that solely feature the thunder god, without assembled, avenging pals, seem to have only the foggiest of ideas about what they’re trying to be. The Shakespearean machinations of the godly realm of Asgard are shoved up against fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor on Earth, cavorting with the mortals. The latter aspect provided many of the highlights of the first film, but Thor’s engagement with his earthbound allies is notably weak here. Chris Hemsworth still prospers in the title role is a way that defies belief, but the whole endeavor is merely biding time until Tom Hiddleston’s increasingly splendid take on the trickster Loki can be fully unleashed. Seasoned HBO director Alan Taylor, undoubtedly offered the gig thanks to work on Game of Thrones, does well enough, but there’s ultimately too much blockbuster noisiness to be contained by anyone unworthy of hefting Mjolnir itself.

Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013). Based on a true story and co-scripted by star Steve Coogan, Philomena is one of those well-meaning dramas, sprinkled with comedy and the gentlest of social and political commentary, that can’t transcend its tepid good intentions. Coogan plays a disgraced governmental spokesman who slinks back to journalism, begrudgingly pursuing the human interest story of an elderly woman (Judi Dench) seeking out the son she was forced to give up for adoption decades earlier. It’s a reasonable sturdy film, thanks largely to the steady hand of director Stephen Frears, but it holds almost no surprises, neither with the plot nor with the emotional notes it hits. Anyone with a passing knowledge of a certain brand of cinematic tropes can sketch the architecture of the narrative within the first few minutes. It is pure blandness, stretched to two hours and presented at twenty-four frames per second, or at least the digital equivalent.

The Seventh Victim (Mark Robson, 1943). Pairing with director Mark Robson for the first time, after RKO promoted his previous collaborator, Jacques Tourneur, to more prestigious opportunities at the studio, noirish horror maestro producer Val Lewton delivered a typically creepy and atmospheric tale of a menacing New York satanic cult. Robson lacked the panache of his predecessor, but the movie still carries much of the unsettling wonder that was the hallmark of Lewton’s efforts. There’s a fairly brilliant set piece in a subway car that is creepy as can be with the simplest of elements. Similarly, the collection of devil worshippers are unnerving mostly because of the almost bureaucratic calm of their gatherings, even when facing down an adversary who’s on to their devious ways. The main problem comes from the casting, with future Oscar-winner Kim Hunter (in her first film role) hopelessly wooden as the heroine desperately searching for her missing sister.

Katzin, Kurosawa, Muschietti, Walsh, Wise

Colorado Territory (Raoul Walsh, 1949). This Raoul Walsh western both locks in on the form and offers a sort of sour, woozy commentary on its many tropes. Joel McRae plays a notorious outlaw who’s sprung from jail and gets himself enmeshed in the fabled “one last job,” a train heist that will net him and his conniving compatriots enough money to allow them to retire for good. Along the way, he also becomes enamored with a lady bandit, the wonderfully named Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo). Walsh had used the exact same source material to make a film noir crime picture a few years earlier, and the whole thing smacks of easy comfort unsettled by a restless creativity. It’s a decent enough western, but it’s a resoundingly amusing genre exercise, a reminder that cinematic audacity comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s little more than smartly assembled layers of reinvention.

Mama (Andrés Muschietti, 2013). With the Guillermo del Toro stamp of approval that comes with his name settled in one of the executive producer spots (a credit that often indicates about as meaningful of a contribution to the creative process as a famous author who agrees to contribute a blurb to the back of an acquaintance’s thick novel), Andrés Muschietti transformed his own Argentine short to feature length. The horror story revolves around a pair of young girls who have been rescued from several years of apparent isolation deep in the woods, a circumstance that stemmed from their father snapping and abducting them after first committing a series of shootings. When the father dies, the two are left alone, and are essential feral when retrieved by their uncle and his goth guitarist girlfriend, the latter played by Jessica Chastain, both slightly miscast and impressively committed. Adjustment issues would seem to be the main concern, but it’s instead the spectral guardian the girls have brought along with them. Muschietti has a nice sense of style, which helps carry the film over its many silly stretches. Logic sometimes lapses and there are a couple of cardboard villains around the fringes, both problems almost endemic to modern horror films. Uneven as it is, there’s an undeniable appeal to its jagged darkness, especially a fairly grim conclusion.

Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950). Well, it’s a masterpiece. Tempting as it is to leave it at that, I’ll note that Akira Kurosawa’s justifiably famous exploration of the dynamics of unreliable narrators is rife with great performances, led by Toshiro Mifune’s live wire warrior and Machiko Kyō’s beset samurai wife, who–to appropriate Kurosawa’s tendency to borrow from Shakespeare–could be Ophelia or could be Lady MacBeth, depending on who’s telling the story. Perhaps the most remarkable element of the film is the way Kurosawa keeps the multiple variations on the single story thread coherent and always novel. As the same tale of an ugly conflict in the middle of the woods is told and retold (and retold and retold), Kurosawa always manages to make it feel novel, reinforcing the film’s thesis that a single encounter exists in an infinite number of ways, the truth of it elusive if not a pure impossibility.

What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (Lee H. Katzin, 1969). A trippy, twisted horror film in which vicious psychological maneuvering reaches almost feverish levels. The great Geraldine Page plays Claire, a widow who discovers that her seemingly wealthy husband was actually deep in debt, effectively leaving her destitute unless she comes up with a creative way to collect money. When she hires a new housekeeper named Alice (Ruth Gordon), it quickly becomes clear that Claire has a devious endgame and that Alice is actually there somewhat undercover, trying to determine what happened to a friend of hers who disappeared while in Claire’s employ. The film is overheated and a little goofy, trafficking in that strange nineteen-sixties fascination with elderly women as horrid monsters (the title itself is the big tip off, deliberately evoking the most famous example of the sub-sub-genre in favor of the source material novel’s more accurate The Forbidden Garden). The film is shaky, perhaps indicative of swapping directors midway through shooting (Lee H. Katzin replaced Bernard Girard), though it is consistently a pleasure to watch Page and Gordon act against one another.

Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959). This urban film noir was partially responsible for director Robert Wise being recruited to pitch in on West Side Story. The story centers on a former policeman who orchestrates a bank robbery, unwisely recruiting a black man and a racist to be his partners on the job. The film is tough-minded and plainspoken and features a nice performance by Ed Begley as the desperate mastermind of the job (Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan play his cohorts in the crime), even if it builds to a denouement that underlines its points so strongly that it tears the paper. The film consistently looks great, thanks to the black-and-white cinematography of Jospeh C. Brun that was in turn guided by Wise’s desire to use infra-red film which gave natural skies an almost otherworldly gloom.