Ikiru (1952)

In Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru dedicated life long bureaucrat Watanabe-san gets stomach cancer, which spurs him to review his life. He soon realizes his dedication to his job has cost him his relationship with his son and marriage. Watanabe-san worked. He didn’t eat, drink and make merry. He didn’t form life-giving friends. He was more of a civil servant robot than anything else. 

What can a heart filled with despair grab on to?

“Ikiru.” Akiro Kurosawa

As was the custom in Japan, the doctor didn’t directly tell Watanabe that he’s going to die, but he could read between the lines and the news profoundly saddens him. He knows his son and daughter-in-law are money-grubbing and can’t wait to 

A group of mothers faces the heartlessness, dare I say low-level evil, of bureaucracy, when they come to Watanabe’s office asking their government to take care of a neighborhood cesspool that’s causing illness and to turn it into a small playground. They’re pushed from department to department as the officials dodge actual work and responsibility. These mothers no doubt represent all the people who visit the office looking for help. 

Kurosawa’s depiction of the inert, soul-sucking system is portrayed with genius in the dark, run down offices with piles of paper towering over the dour workers. The only sign of life is a young office lady who jokes, laughs and brims with life. Of course, her only hope is to succeed in exiting from this choking, albeit safe career.

Watanabe-san knows he’s lost and seeks pleasure in a journey led by a writer he meets at a bar. The writer sees his plight and promises to show him real life in Tokyo’s red light district and dance halls. Watanabe realizes that his real hope to discover life is through the young lady who’s now left the government and works at a toy company, which is monotonous but also allows her to make things that bring people joy. Watanabe becomes like an uncle to her taking her out at night and living vicariously through her. Soon enough she tires of the attention and questions what’s really going on. It’s getting rather creepy. Watanabe explains. She’s the only person who knows the whole truth.

Although the young lady refuses to go out on the town with Watanabe, she does cause him to find a new purpose, which gives him the joy he sought.

The film moves into its second act, with a novel division. We go from Watanabe’s life with cancer to his funeral. Half the film takes place with his colleagues toasting him as his son and daughter-in-law watching on. Puzzled by Watanabe’s dramatic change in his last days, they try to figure out why he pushed himself body and soul into seeing that the cesspool became a park. To see half a 2 hour 23 minutes film told in flashback is likely not to work, but with a genius like Kurosawa it absolutely does. 

Though the theme of death may put some people off, this film, though certainly sad, is very powerful and positive. From the masterful acting to the powerful use of music and scenery, Ikiru is a must-see classic. 

The Criterion Collection DVD I had included a documentary on Kurosawa, which focused on the different aspects (e.g. music, script, storyboard, directing) of his filmmaking. It was full of information on what made him unique and much of it was Kurosawa describing his work and commenting on filmmaking at large. I learned things like Kurosawa would edit each day’s rushes that night so that the actors and crew could see how the film was taking form. This gave them a stronger sense of the film and meant that when shooting wrapped, there was only one day more to edit. I didn’t know that Kurosawa didn’t go to university and was selected from a very large pool of candidates from elite schools to enter Toho Studio’s training program for assistant directors. This program took 5 people the year he started and the other 4 were all from top colleges. Kurosawa also mused that today (

Death of a Cyclist

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Death of a Cyclist (1955) is a powerful film from Spain. I found this via serendipity as the image on the DVD box intrigued me. The Criterion Collection site offers a plot summary I can’t trump, so here that is:

Upper-class geometry professor Juan and his wealthy, married mistress, Maria José, driving back from a late-night rendezvous, accidentally hit a cyclist, and run. The resulting, exquisitely shot tale of guilt, infidelity, and blackmail reveals the wide gap between the rich and the poor in Spain, and surveys the corrupt ethics of a society seduced by decadence. Juan Antonio Bardem’s charged melodrama Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un ciclista) was a direct attack on 1950s Spanish society under Franco’s rule. Though it was affected by the dictates of censorship, its sting could never be dulled.

Compelling and intense, Lucia Bosé stars as Maria José, the stunning mistress who’s anxious about the black mail and incrimination she faces, while not worrying much about her responsibility for the death of the bicyclist. As the film progresses, the professor faces a career crisis caused by distraction due to his ruminating over the accident. As the university students lay siege to the administration building, the professor gains moral clarity which leads to a most surprising ending.

I liked that the story offered unpredictable plot turns. Lucia Bosé’s beauty and style were simple and captivating. The cinematography was bold and showed how black and white films can achieve more stunning results than color more often than not. I do wonder was Spain of the 1950s that immoral? How much of this is exaggeration?

I highly recommend Death of a Cyclist and I’ll look for more films with Bosé and directed by Juan Antonio Bardem.

The Black River

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Mask Kobayashi paints a bleak picture of Tokyo during the 1950s in The Black River. Set in a neighborhood beside a U.S. Army base, Kobayashi shows how Japan’s become corrupt. When Nishida, an upright student/bookseller, moves into a decrepit apartment building that’s more of a shanty than a building, we meet a motley crew consisting of parasites, prostitutes and a couple good guys who don’t stand a chance of fighting city hall given that most of their neighbors would sell out their own mother given the chance.

Soon both Nishida and Killer Joe, a Japanese low level gangster, fall for Shizuko, a lovely, innocent young woman. Joe shows his colors early on by ordering his hoodlum pals to attack Shizuko. It seems they’re going to rape her, but Joe happens by and fights them off. He professes his love and while Shizuko is briefly wooed, Joe then forces himself on her and she’s reviled. The next day Shizuko visits Joe to tell him she was going to report him to the police, but decided she’d be willing to marry him to salvage her reputation. What a sacrifice! It’s hard to believe that a woman would even have to consider such an option, but in some times and places that’s how people thought.

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Meanwhile Joe’s plotting with the greedy landlady to evict the residents of the shanty. Both will make out like bandits if they can get the not-so-beautiful losers out of the place.

The film then criticizes the greed, pettiness and lack of morality in society without blaming the problems on the American Army.The Black River shows how the characters contribute to their own troubles. Certainly, Shizuko was a victim in many ways, but she winds up but her choices also lead to an end where I saw no happily ever after for her.

High Noon

High Noon (1952) is another classic I hadn’t seen till now. I remember lots of people talking about it, but never made the effort to see it — till now. As you probably, know it’s the story of  Will Kane, a marshall, played by Gary Cooper, who stands up to Frank Miller, a bad guy who’s got it out for him. There are more details though.

Cooper’s character has just gotten married to a Quaker, who abhors violence. He’s planning to leave with her and start a new life. They’re on the road, when Kane realizes he can’t leave the town unprotected. The new sheriff won’t arrive till the next day and Miller, whom Kane arrested, is on a train to the town and will arrive at — high noon. Amy, Kane’s wife lost her brother to senseless violence and won’t turn back with him. Not at first.

Upon arriving back in town Kane tries to get a posse together to protect the people, but everyone’s too cowardly to join. It’s quite dramatic to see Kane summon the courage to fight on his own, for people too chicken to help themselves.

I found Kane’s moral conviction and courage to do something you’d rather not do compelling. Despite the passage of time, High Noon still works. No wonder it’s a classic.

A Night to Remember

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

A Night to Remember (1958) is a disaster film with dignity. It lacks the sentimental love story, which was central to Titanic, but that’s why it’s a better film. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, the film shows the swells enjoying the high life and the boisterous fun below in steerage mixed in with the misplaced wire messages about the iceberg and the frustrating refusal of nearby ship called the California to believe the Titanic’s distress messages.

The film shows people of all sorts, some willing to help their fellow passengers and others who’ll kick and claw their way into a lifeboat. The film weaves the facts in so you don’t feel like it’s a history lecture. You root for the characters all the while knowing most won’t make it. When the boat starts tilting so much that it’s at a 45° angle, you feel dreadful.

The Criterion Collection offers a good essay on the film here.

Hobson’s Choice

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Staring Charles Laughton and directed by David Lean, Hobson’s Choice (1954) takes viewers back to Victorian England, to Henry Hobson’s home and boot shop. Hobson has three daughters, sensible Mary who at 30 is considered an old maid no man will marry and two sillier, more marriageable daughters, Alice and Vicky. Hobson’s a drinker and though successful, very much a cheapskate. From the start we see that Hobson drinks way too much and bickers constantly with his daughters. He admits he’s not good with females.

Alice and Vicky plead with Hobson to provide dowries as their beau’s, like any self-respecting men, wouldn’t marry without one. Maggie, the brains of the shop, is put off when Hobson assumes his eldest daughter will never marry. She takes action and informs the mind-mannered Will Mossop, the best book maker in town, that he must marry her. She gives him no choice and even takes him to inform his overbearing landlady that Will will not be marrying her daughter.

Hobson, Maggie & Will

Hobson, Maggie & Will

The movie delights from start to finish and provides a look more realistic look at the era than we usually get. It’s an interesting contrast to The Paradise or Mr Selfridge as it shows the world of a small shop in a small town. In his way Hobson’s as weak as Harry Selfridge, but thankfully he has a strong daughter who reins him in.

3:10 to Yuma

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I’m normally not a fan of Westerns, but if the Criterion Collection saw fit to offer Delmar Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957), maybe this Western was worth a look. It sure was. Starring Glen Ford, whom I associate with TV sitcoms if anything, 3:10 to Yuma is a psychologically compelling game of cat and mouse. Ford plays Ben Wade, a slick, charming head of a gang of stagecoach robbers. After his gang kills a stagecoach driver while robbing the coach, his gang disperses to hide out. Ford miscalculates and allows a little romance to detain him and so he gets nabbed.

He’s in hick country and doubts the locals can keep his gang from him from breaking loose or getting rescued. Surely, he can outsmart these poor yokels. The central yokel, is a small rancher Dan Evans, who agrees to escort Wade to a town where a train to Yuma will take Wade to the nearest judge. Evans needs the $200 reward to save his cattle. Just as desperately Evans heeds his wife and sons’ esteem. That they seem to see him as a man who always plays it safe is getting to him.

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Some of the tensest moments are in a hotel room where these two character kill time till the train’s about to leave. The film’s strength is the psychology of the characters, that and the remarkable cinematography of the desolate Western landscape.

Good quote:

Bisbee Marshal: Do I have two volunteers?
First Posse Member: We gotta know what we’re gettin’ ourselves into.
Second Posse Member: Sure… might not be safe.
Bisbee Marshal: Safe! Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from lookin’ at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years… then choked to death on lemon pie. Do I have two volunteers?

As with all the Criterion films I’ve seen, the extras were well worth my time. One was an interview with Glen Ford’s son, who’s written his father’s biography. The other was an interview with Elmore Leonard, who wrote the short story the film’s based on. I’ve heard Leonard’s name and associated him with short stories, but the interview was inspiring and insightful for writers. The power of this spare film, stuck with me for days. I’d definitely check out more of Daves’ films. [categorie film, review, New Years’ Resolution Film Challenge]

The Sweet Smell of Success

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When I made my 2014 New Year’s Resolution to watch one old movie (i.e. before 1960) I had no idea where it would take me. I’ve discovered so many terrific films due to this challenge and the limited, but good selection at my local DVD store.

A prime example is the 1957 The Sweet Smell of Success  starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a struggling, opportunistic press agent who’s both manipulating and manipulated as he tries to get the powerful J.J. Hunsecher played by Burt Lancaster to write about his clients. It’s a career based on lies, begging and creating an icy cool image. J.J. is based on Walter Winchell, a columnist who pioneered the celebrity beat. Here J.J. gets Sidney to break up a romance between his sister and a jazz musician. No one would be good enough for J.J.’s sister Susie. There’s definitely a weird one way vibe between J.J. and Susie, who’s in love with clean cut Dallas.

Sidney has few scruples about setting up Dallas. The one time he objects to J.J.’s plan, he capitulates. Anything to further his career. Sidney lives on the edge in a corrupt world with edgy, witty dialog and high stakes. The few times his maneuvers don’t work, like when he tries to blackmail one of J.J.’s rivals, it backfires. Sidney never thought that someone in his field might prefer to come clean to his wife than to do his bidding. Sidney’s doomed as he’s neither as powerful as J.J. or honest like Dallas or the clean-when-forced-to-be columnist.

The Sweet Smell of Success is set in a kind of hell, a hell with witty reparteés, stylish women and men in sharp suits sipping martini’s. It’s fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to come within a mile of any of the characters.

I’m now re-watching with the Criterion Collection commentary to eke all I can from the film.

A few quotes:

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The Life of Oharu

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Life in 17th century Japan certainly wasn’t easy for women if The Life of Oharu is anything to go by. I really loved this movie about a beautiful young woman. First Oharu is a courtesan at the Imperial Palace. When she gives in to a lower class retainer’s advances, she’s found out. Then she’s banished from Kyoto. Her parents are also banished because they failed to guide their daughter properly. When they’re led out of the city, soldiers keep back their loved ones separating them with a pole as they proceed to the city limits in tears.

Oharu’s lover did not get off scot-free. He was beheaded after dictating a letter urging Oharu only to marry for love.

After a long banishment, Oharu lucks out. An emissary from an important lord must hunt for the perfect courtesan. The requirements are so specific. Feet must be a certain length, certain earlobes, background, talents. No one fits all the criteria — no one except Oharu. At first she kicks and screams, but eventually she goes to Edo (now Tokyo) where she delights the lord and infuriates his wife. She bears the lord the desired male heir and things are looking up. She finally feels at home, valued. However, the wife, who’s jealous of her husband’s fondness for Oharu, sends her packing with very little cash. Oharu’s father has over extended himself in business thinking he’ll be taken care of for life as his daughter bore the heir. The film continues to show this poor woman’s hardships and to reveal how precarious life could be in this highly structured society. The acting is superb and the story compelling as I had no idea what to expect. I really was shocked that Oharu was tossed out after producing a royal heir.

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While the film is melodramatic, there’s humor such as when a prostitute drags a man into an inn, while he’s calling out, “I’ve got to get home to my wife.” Based on the novel, The Life of an Amorous Woman, this film is beautiful with images that will stick with you. For more on the cinematography read this essay on the Criterion Collection website.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

1The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

My friend Kevin recommended I watch The Day the Earth Stood Still for my classic movie challenge. Though I typically don’t think much of sci fi movies, I gave this one a try and it won me over. Directed by Robert Wise, The Day the Earth Stood Still begins with a cheap-looking spaceship landing on earth in Washington DC. Despite the archaic look of the film, I got pulled in completely. Wise mesmerized me with this very cheap, plain spaceship with its clichéd passengers.

A crowd gathers around the ship and soon Klaatu, the archetypical spaceman emerges. Klaatu’s soon shot and his robot Gort defends his master using laser vision against the army. Klaatu’s taken to the army hospital and observed. Klaatu is played as a very serious, really supercilious figure who’s been given the task of letting the inferior earthlings know that now that they’ve gotten nuclear weapons their squabbling could hurt other planets and these other, higher beings won’t tolerate any activity that can upset their peace. His request to speak with all the world leaders is deflected. Things just don’t work that way on earth.

Klaatu escapes in a stolen business suit and finds a boarding house that will take him in. He befriends Bobby, a boy who’s impressed with Klaatu’s knowledge of science and around novelty. Bobby’s father’s passed away and his mother isn’t so sure about Klaatu, but she’s busy dating her perspective husband so Bobby’s got lots of free time to wander the city and go back to the spaceship with Klaatu. It is all rather hokey, but Klaatu is so smart and so above us. We know he’s right about our wars and “petty squabbles.”

Klaatu gives up on the world leaders and tries to get a renown scientist to organize a big powwow with all the top scientists in the world.

Unfortunately, Bobby’s father-to-be gets jealous of Klaatu and tells the army about him. Soon Klaatu must flee for his life and try to war the world that if we don’t stop our nuclear arms development, the rest of the universe will bake us to a cinder.

There are plenty of amusing quotes, such as:

Reporter: I suppose you are just as scared as the rest of us.
Klaatu: In a different way, perhaps. I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.

George Barley: Why doesn’t the government do something, that’s what I’d like to know.
Mr. Krull: What can they do, they’re only people just like us.
George Barley: People my foot, they’re democrats.

All in all, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a fun movie and its dated aspects just add to the fun.

Fun Fact:

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still won a Golden Globe award in the category of “Best Film to Promote Global Understanding.” Who knew that was a category?
  • When Patricia Neal was making the film, she didn’t think much of it and was surprised to learn that it’s regarded as one of the best sci fi movies to date.