State of the Union

While watching my MasterClass in Dramatic Writing by David Mamet, I got curious about Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, whom he mentions. So I found the DVD for State of the Union, (1948) a film adaptation of their play. I found it delightful, even though there’s plenty of jokes that you just couldn’t say today.

State of the Union stars Spenser Tracy as Grant Matthews, a successful business man whose young mistress, played by Angela Lansbury, is a newspaper owner with political savvy in spades. She sees that he’s got the background and charisma to become President. She convinces Jim Conover, her partner in political maneuvering to take on Matthews’ campaign. The one problem is Matthew’s wife Mary, played by Katharine Hepburn. Viewers know when they see Hepburn in the credits that the newspaper owner’s met her match.

Grant and Mary haven’t been together for four months. Mary’s aware of her husband’s affair and has kicked out the mistress the one time the hussy visited her home. Mary still loves Grant and does believe that he’d be a good President — if he stays true to his beliefs. Mary leaves her home to travel the country so that Grant is seen with the loving wife the public expects. His first speech is a doozie and reaps accolades from the common voter. However, Conover & Co. only care about political movers and shakers who can deliver delegates. They know how to game the system by making the right promises to key people. Mary is leery of Conover’s tricks and the mistresses manipulations. Still she sticks with the campaign hoping for the best, hoping Grant doesn’t slide all the way down the slippery slope.

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I will say I was surprised by some of Grant’s political ideas. For example, he foresaw and believed in a world government. He thought that since the 13 colonies banded together and made the USA, that a bunch of countries should band together and create a world government. Well, the EU is somewhat like what he proposed, but Grant envisioned a more far reaching confederation. I wasn’t surprised that Conover practically blew a gasket.

The film has wonderful banter and some rousing speeches. State of the Union examines our political system which is corrupted by campaign financing. (Sadly, such films don’t have much effect because money still taints the government.) Tracy, Hepburn, Lansbury and the rest of the cast offer delightful performances and a bold look at infidelity. Yes, there are jokes about gender stereotypes but I was able to forgive those venial sins of another era.

It was odd to enjoy a film that promotes fidelity knowing that the stars had an affair for 27 years. It’s a troubling issue. On the one hand, it’s acting and what’s presented is the better scenario. On the other, many in Hollywood have made bad choices and tried to glamorize them. It’s a question well worth discussing.

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Stray Dog

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The first noir crime film in Japan, in Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) rookie detective, Murakami, gets his pistol stolen while he’s riding a crowded bus. Humiliated, Murakami (Mifune) takes responsibility for his carelessness and begs his boss to fire him. The pragmatic boss brushes his request away and pairs the rookie with a veteran detective (Shimura) named Sato. The two set out to track down the pistol.

Plagued by guilt, Mifune is obsessed with finding his pistol and disguises himself to search the black markets of aprés-guerre Tokyo. We see the squalor and darkness of these markets (which aren’t quite as bad as the poverty in Dos’ka den). These scenes are beautifully and masterfully shot to show this underworld full of hustlers, prostitutes, bums and drunks.

Aprés-guerre is a term Murakami and Sato discuss at length as Sato notices the difference between the pre-WWII generation and the aprés-guerre generation. A WWII veteran, Murakami expresses his sympathy and understanding for the culprit whom he imagines is a product of a rough society. Yusa, the thief, also is a veteran so Murakami identifies with him and knows how the war damaged the soldiers.

However, Sato tells him that thinking is generational and won’t help a cop do his work. If a cop’s philosophy views a criminal as being without choice or responsibility, the officer just won’t be able to work as he should, Sato asserts. Sato reminds Murakami that he’s chosen law and order, while Yusa’s chosen exploitation and crime. There is a difference, a big one.

As time passes, the missing gun is used in robberies and a murder. Murakami knows the pistol had all seven bullets and the plot becomes a race to get to the gun. In this race, the heroes’ search takes us through Japanese society from local watering holes, to a packed baseball field, to a burlesque hall, to a filthy shanty and to Sato’s simple, loving home. Along the way we’re treated to Sato’s wise practice.  It’s fascinating to see him deal with each subject, be it a showgirl or a pickpocket, with just the right approach. His understanding of people makes chasing and shootouts unnecessary.

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I learned about Stray Dog from the commentary feature with the Drunken Angel DVD. Mifune and Shimura starred in Drunken Angel. Here they both play completely different characters. Mifune moves from angry gangster to exemplary rookie cop and Shimura shifts from righteous drunk doctor to wise, veteran cop. Another pivotal performance was given by Keiko Awaji, who plays a showgirl, an uncooperative witness. In the extra features, Awaji explains how she didn’t want to be in this or any film. She wanted a career in operettas, but she got talked into this role. She was terribly pouty and unpleasant about the filming process and this difficult attitude made her performance work. Go figure.

I never intended to get into Japanese films as much as I have. I now have been so impressed with the stellar performances that it’s clear that it’s high time I learn the names of these actors.

Here’s a compilation of Mifune’s performances:

I Will Buy You

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Kishimoto and the player’s girlfriend

A social critique of post WWII Japan, I Will Buy You shows how baseball became corrupted and how athletes became commodities in the 1950s. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, I Will Buy You shows the machinations surrounding a college baseball superstar’s entry to pro sports. The story focuses on Kishimoto, a driven scout who’s hellbent on signing Kurita, a hot college hitter. To do this he needs to woo Kurita’s greedy family, his girlfriend who’s leery of the materialism that’s taken over Japan and finally his deceptive, self-centered mentor.

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Kishimoto (right) with his boss

I Will Buy You is in the shomin-geki genre, which consists of dramas about the problems of ordinary society. Here Kobayashi takes on the world of Japan’s most cherished sport, baseball. (I had a student who insisted that the Japanese invented baseball.) Kobayashi brilliantly challenges viewers to see how calculating, conniving and avaricious it’s become.

People think the Japanese are oblique and indirect, but in I Will Buy You characters are explicit in what they want and how they feel about Kurita, who’s rarely on screen and he’s objectified like no other film character I can think of.

The film had a compelling story and covered sports in a way an American film wouldn’t. The end surprised me. With so many characters standing in the shadows, the masterful cinematography reminded me of film noir minus the murder or crime.

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.

The Bad Sleep Well

Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well blew me away. It’s not one of his most famous films, but it’s packed with power. I learned of The Bad Sleep Well via Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Picture channel where Zhou analyzes Kurosawa’s effective placement of actors.

The film opens with reporters and detectives invading the wedding between the handsome apparently straight as an arrow Nishi to Yoshiko, the pretty and disabled daughter of CEO Iwabuchi, whose corrupt deals caused Nishi’s father’s suicide. Nishi has positioned himself in Iwabuchi’s corporation as his assistant and married into the clan to exact revenge for his father’s death.

Disrupted by the appearance of a wedding cake that looks like the building Nishi’s father killed himself and by the arrest of a loyal, timid employee indicate the disaster of the marriage. Nishi has spent five years trying to get into Iwabuchi’s inner circle to expose the kickbacks and violence that fueled the success of Public Corporation. Iwabuchi and his colleagues are cold blooded, willing to goad their employees to suicide if it helps them keep their dirty cash flowing in.

While the film differs from hamlet, there are many intended parallels. Nishi’s obsessed with his father’s death. Yoshiko is very much like Ophelia and she meets no better end. While Nishi’s mother never married, Kurosawa uses gray flannel ghosts to freak out his characters.

The evils of corporate greed have bene a common theme in modern film Somehow Kurosawa, while showing blatant, unrepentant evil, doesn’t seem to have exaggerated. The executives and their conniving seem all too real.

Every scene had me riveted and the ending was a complete surprise, though it was perfect. It’s a film the I won’t soon forget.

Dragnet Girl

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Dragnet Girl: Joji (l) and Tokiko (r)

Director Ozu’s Dragnet Girl is an absorbing silent film about Tokiko,a gangster moll, who becomes jealous when Joji, her boyfriend, gets a case of the wandering eye. Tokiko looks as sweet as can be, but actually she’s quite a coquette. She works at a company by day and the boss’s son is smitten with her plying her with expensive gifts that she’s happy to take.

Her night’s are spent with Joji, the head of a small crime outfit that seems to fix boxing matches. Tokiko is Joji’s main squeeze. Selfish and extravagant, she’s quite brazen and disloyal as she’ll wear her boss’s gifts in front of Joji.

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Kazuko

When a high school boy, impressed with Joji’s flash and power, tries to join his gang, the boy’s sister, Kazuko, who’s simple and innocent, begs Joji to get her brother back on the straight and narrow. Joji’s instantly smitten with Kazuko. He starts hanging around her music shop and starts appreciating classical music and all that Kazuko, who pays him no mind, appreciates.

At first Tokiko dismisses her rival, but when she sees that Joji is changing for real she gets nervous. She goes as far as plotting to shoot Kazuko, but then she comes to appreciate Kazuko’s magnetic innocence. Tokiko is not to be trusted after telling Joji she wants to change and become more like her rival. She’s been branded as a delinquent and that label’s impossible to remove.

The film has the style of a noir classic and takes some interesting turns as Tokiko refuses to marry her boss and plots to rob him with Joji. It’s a beautiful simple film that didn’t need talking.

Sepia Saturday

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This week’s Sepia Saturday prompt sent me looking for favourite old movie photos. I’m sharing images of some favourite international directors: Ozu and Kurosawa from Japan and Sacha Guitry of France.

You can find my reviews of Ozu films here, Kurosawa films here, and Guitry films here.

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