Thursday, May 20, 2010

Stray Dog -- A Guest Review by Kerry Newcomb

If you harbor a fondness for noir films or those good ol' 1950's police procedurals shot on the mean streets of... (Naked City, Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, etc) then may I suggest you find a copy of Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog.

It is a fascinating film, a little long in the middle although I have to say it continued to interest me. What we have is a simple story, a rookie detective has his pistol lifted from his pocket. The rest of the film is his pursuit of that gun. It is a Colt automatic loaded with seven rounds. Yep, you count them off one by one as the gun is used in one crime after another. Recovering the weapon becomes a point of honor for the young detective and he suffers greatly each time it is used to harm an innocent.

Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura play the young novice detective and the experienced veteran. Shimura has the quiet, passive, thoughtful strength of a Japanese Inspector Foyle (I add this for you Michael Kitchen fans. You'll know what I mean.) The film is shot on the streets of Tokyo, indeed one nine-minute section is shot without dialogue and involves Mifune wandering undercover, down the streets and slums of the city looking for a gangster arms merchant.

What a fascinating experience, this post war Japan, rising from the ashes of WW II. The camera enters bars and you expect those singsong, Sayonara melodies found in American films. Kurosawa gives us New Orleans blues or bassa nova rhythyms or back alley jazz, all these amazing foreign influences that in the four years of occupation after the war the Japanese culture has adopted as its own. Mifune is an ex soldier and there is a distinct parallel between him and his criminal nemesis. Both men suffered indignities and a sense of displacement after returning home from the war. Mifune's character could have easily slid into the criminal life and he recognizes this about himself. Shimura, the wise old cop, was a law man during the war, whose job was to keep civil order in an impossible time of major conflict. A heat wave grips the city. The celluloid practically drips moisture through the television screen. And when storms erupt into savage downpours their timing rivals the hurricane in a film like Key Largo. Shimura is a dogged, plodding copper who has no use for hunches. he scrutinizes the evidence of each crime scene and fits the tidbits together like the pieces of a map leading to the gunman. Kurosawa supplies us with plenty of colorful types to deal with. And the final chase and desperate confrontation that courses through slum streets, train yards and a heavily wooded tract thick with trees and overgrown and steamy as some savage Eden is just excellent. And left me exhausted. Kurosawa's brilliance is in setting up this final chase with a preemptive scene in which...well...I won't spoil it but it is one of those great, "Holy Crap!" moments.

Anyway, I've seen films shot in Paris and Berlin after the war, The Third Man comes to mind, but cannot recall one shot in Japan. It was fascinating. There is a scene in a burlesque house with a bunch of chorus girls (now I have your interest?) where what happens after their onstage routine is something I have never seen portrayed in a film before.

So Stray Dog isn't gonna be everyone's cup o java but if you're interested, it's worth searching out at the library or Netflix.

If you haven't read Kerry Newcomb's novels, you're missing a treat. Here's a good one to begin with.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review! You make it sound very appealing.

I agree about movies shot on location like THE THIRD MAN and NAKED CITY.

Gotta look out for this one.