Yojimbo

Yojimbo 5

I didn’t expect to like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as I knew it was a samurai film and fighting’s not my thing, but since I’m on a Kurosawa roll, I figured I should see it anyway. Boy, am I glad I did. The film offers unexpected wit and an unforgettable, surly hero, named Sanjuro.

Sanjuro wanders about the country after his master and retinue have lost. He comes to a town caught in the crossfire of two gangs. The townspeople live cowering in fear. After Sanjuro displays his swordsmanship with finesse the gang leaders try to lure him with money so he’ll play for their side. Ever cagey, Sanjuro’s wise to their game and trickery and double-crossing follow. There is no good side to join.

Sanjuro’s irascible but not evil. He does save a family knowing that’ll cost him. He gives them his gold coins to flee, but when they try to thank him he shouts that he hates anyone who’s pathetic and if they cry he’ll kill them. It’s all tongue in cheek and such humor in the context is a poke at the Western or samurai genre movies.

Also, the soundtrack is pure 1960s Western music, which adds a layer of fun as it winks at Hollywood and films in general. Another aspect of humor is the buffoonery of the other characters one gang’s nincompoops are just as inept as the other’s. Sanjuro operates on a whole different plane.

Toshio Mifune plays Sanjuro masterfully. He shows more with a glance or flick of a toothpick than most award-winning actors of any era. If he can convince a Western/fighting movie anti-fan like me to eagerly desire to watch the three other films, his performance must be stellar. Kurosawa made a lot of movies with Mifune and once said that:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. – Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in Human Condition, Ran, and several other classics, appears as a loyal member of one of the gangs. He’s set apart as the one gangster with a gun, which he shoots with precision as a counter to Sanjuro’s very traditional swordsmanship. His character is threatening and probably the sharpest of the bunch though no match for Sanjuro.

This film inspired Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, in fact it’s said to be almost a carbon copy. I may just watch that too, but I’ve become such a Mifune fan, I doubt anyone can fill his shoes.

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Gilda

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What a great introduction to a character! Rita Hayworth who plays the title character in Gilda wows with her hair when she first appears. Her hair is just terrific and is probably one of the best things about the noir film. Her hair is used to great effect at least twice in the film so I’m in no way putting down the film.

Gilda is a classic film that’s mainly plot and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it has so much style, that it’s easy to forgive. Set in Argentina, the story begins with Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford) wins big in a dice game, but is cornered by some sore losers. Fortunately, a mysterious stranger, Ballin Mundson arrives with his trusty cane with a hidden blade. He intimidates the thugs and saves Farrell. Later he again crosses paths and hires Johnny Farrell.

Johnny’s life becomes far better as he goes from gambling in dives to managing Mundson’s high end casino. His life is humming along till Mundson returns with his new wife: Gilda. Wouldn’t you know it, Gilda and Johnny were once a couple. Add to that Mundson is a controlling husband. He charges Johnny with keeping tabs on Gilda, who’ll take up with any handsome, young man from the hundreds who’re smitten with her. (So I suppose Mundson has some reason to appoint someone as her keeper.)

On top of the love triangle, Mundson’s trailed by mysterious Germans who’re chasing him and want to seize control of Mundson’s cartel so his work keeps him too busy to spend much quality time with his wife.

We never learn why Gilda and Johnny broke up but it’s clear their love-hate relationship will live on. Mundson fakes his death and so Johnny marries Gilda. At first we think they’ll finally work through their past and find love, but Johnny actually just married Gilda to get punish her for cheating on Mundson.

Another part of the story that nagged me was the unlikelihood that Mundson would meet and also marry Gilda, Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. Really? She was stunning, but not the only fish in the sea. The odds of being in the same room, let alone her agreeing to marry him were astronomical. But the film had style and moved along so I forgive the filmmakers.

Another coincidence that nagged me was the unlikelihood of Mundson meeting and marrying Johnny’s ex-girlfriend. The film needed a line like Bogart’s “Of all the gin joints . . . ” from Casablanca.

Some view Gilda as her husbands’ pawn, but while Johnny does trick her and hurt her, she was able to quite a degree to defy both of them. It’s a complicated film and none of the characters are meant to resemble real people so it’s easy to enjoy the film despite its plot failings.

Hayworth is a compelling actress, not just for her hair, but for her stage presence and voice.

If you’re interested in film noir, you should see Gilda.

Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.

Laura (1944)

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Laura

After seeing something on Twitter about the film Laura, I was intrigued. With a hard-boiled detective, a beautiful, dead woman, a load of suspects to sift through and lots of plot twists, Laura held my interest. It’s about a notch down from a Raymond Chandler film. It starts with a wiry, old snob typing away in his bathtub. He’s narrating and telling us about Laura’s disappearance. Soon we learn more about this beautiful woman, who’s about to marry a hick from high society, played by a young Vincent Price. Her maid discovered her dead body. She’s got a great apartment and job and every Tuesday and Friday she dines with this snobbish radio personality who’s obsessed with her.

Enter Detective McPherson who’s cut from Philip Marlowe’s cloth. He’s sent to do a job, but before you know it he’s smitten with the victim.  He’s also aggravated Laura’s fiancé, who it turns out has no money, and the old snob. Both look like good candidates for the culprit. Yet a 180° plot turn pops up as McPherson’s daydreaming about Laura and the plot keeps getting twisted.

The story’s not on the level of a Raymond Chandler film starring Bogart, but it moves along and kept me guessing.

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Monsieur Vincent

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Vincent tries to get someone to adopt this orphan

When Monsieur Vincent opens, we see Vincent Depaul entering a deserted town. Whenever he knocks on a door, someone throws rocks at him from the second floor. Finally, Vincent who’s the new priest in town gets let inside. He discovers that the aristocrats inside are hiding hoping to avoid the plague. They’re in the midst of a wild party just in case they don’t escape the plague.

As the new priest, and one that lives the gospel, Vincent tries to convince the nobles to take in a girl whose mother has just died. They’re all to scared. He winds up taking her in a very modest room he’s rented.

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Vincent’s wisdom is revered by the rich. He’s soon the mentor and spiritual guide for a wealthy couple, but he wants to help the poor. When he tells his patrons that he plans to leave they keep him near by supporting his charity efforts more. This works for a while, but eventually Vincent goes to Paris where he begins a charity for the poorest of the poor.

Throughout his work with the poor, Vincent recruited wealthy women to help him and found great frustration when they didn’t agree with his ideas of expanding and expanding their charity programs. Eventually, realizing that people who understand the poor may be better to work with, he taps a poor girl to become one of his first nuns. Actually, she came to him and the light bulb went off.

I went to a high school named after Louise de Marillac, a wealthy woman, who became key to Vincent’s outreach to the poor. In the film, she’s just in a couple scenes. You can see that she’s a peer of the wealthy women, so Vincent wants her to lead them, though it’s tough to convince these opinionated women to trust Vincent. (St. Louise de Marillac wound up leading the Daughters of Charity, an order of nuns that serves the poor.)

This bio pic was interesting and well done. I was surprised that so much of the time Vincent Depaul dealt with administrative issues and trying to persuade the aristocracy to help him more. I thought he was more “hands on.” In any event, the film moved along well and introduces people to this 17th century saint.

In French with subtitles.

Red Beard

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Red Beard performs surgery as Yasumot o looks on

I had imagined the premise of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) incorrectly for years. I assumed it was some samurai film with lots of sword fights so I never bothered with it. Then when I listened to the commentary on The Lower Depths, I realized that it was a drama. I had to right this wrong so I picked up the DVD at the library.

Set in 19th century Japan, Red Beard isn’t just about the curmudgeon older doctor so nicknamed, it’s equally about young Dr. Yasumoto, who has just finished medical school and arrives Red Beard’s clinic. Yasumoto is not happy about working in a clinic that serves the poorest of the poor. He had his heart set on treating high status samurai. Surely, this is a mistake the arrogant, obstinate  young doctor believes.

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Yasumoto (Kayama) and Red Beard (Mifune) with director A. Kurosawa

Yasumoto refuses to put on the clinic uniform or to abide by any of the clinic rules. He’s horrified by the outward appearance of the poor. He almost gets killed when he flouts a rule about avoiding the hut in the back where a deranged, wealthy woman is housed. All the while Red Beard is gruff, wise and patient. He sees so much more than Yasumoto can.

I loved Red Beard’s gruff ways. He was gentle with the patients who needed it, but tough with those who were foolish. He was wise in dealing with Yasumoto, allowing the young doctor to figure life out on his own and smiling when he finally donned his uniform and took on treating the poor of his own accord.

The plot twists and turns. Sometimes Red Beard is the focus, often Yasumoto, or a poor girl who’s rescued from a brothel. So many characters are given the spotlight and they all deserve it. The film has an emotional depth on par with The Human Condition, and one that few films bother to attempt. Kurosawa doesn’t beat you over the head with a message, but he does make you muse on how you should be kinder or more compassionate, how you should stretch beyond your comfort zone. It’s a film I could watch again and again. I’m so glad my misconception was dispelled. Red Beard is a treasure.

 

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.