STRAY DOG (Akira Kurosawa, 1949).
Murakami (Toshirô Mifune), a young cop, has his gun stolen from
him on a crowded bus. Humiliated, he vows to track down the thief himself,
and he receives help in his task from a police veteran (Takashi Shimura).
Murakami's horror and shame increases when he learns that his gun has
been used in another crime.
Kurosawa shows how much he had learned from American crime pictures.
The film's use of light and shadow, the camera placement and taut pace,
are expertly done. But Stray Dog is a lot more than a genre piece.
There's a thoughtfulness and moral gravity to the picture that makes
it special. Murakami's intense remorse and obsession with honor is balanced
by the gentler, more resigned attitude of his chief and other police
veterans. The underworld is presented as essentially sad and wasteful
rather than thrilling, and this lends pathos to the story. Mifune is
great as the rookie cop--whom he plays rightly as scared and vulnerable
rather than heroic.
Stray Dog is remarkable for its portrayal of the postwar Japanese
urban milieu, with its poverty, prostitution, and adoption of "tough"
Western attitudes and slang. Early on in the picture, Murakami wanders
through the poor sections of the city for days on end looking for the
man who took his gun. The sequence takes on the form of one of those
Hollywood transitional montages, where the hero is shown searching various
locales and asking questions before the story goes into its next phase.
But Kurosawa does something very different. Instead of quickly taking
us through the conventional montage, he extends the sequence much longer,
with the shots of Mifune tramping about and encountering various people
and situations continuing on and on for three or four times the length
we expect. This brilliant gamble has the effect of driving home the
exhaustive and seemingly hopeless nature of the needle-in-a- haystack
search, but more importantly, it brings the film's social observation
to the forefront. We really experience the painful, bewildering, and
chaotic world of postwar Tokyo in a way that a shorter montage couldn't
have achieved (the great location footage was shot by assistant director
The film carefully constructs an identification between Murakami and
his prey, showing their similarities while stressing the key element
of personal responsibility that sets them apart. The unusually sensitive
story ends with a tour de force chase sequence that is both exciting
A GENERATION (Andrzej Wajda, 1955).
In Nazi-occupied Warsaw, a disaffected young man (Tadeusz Lomnicki)
is recruited into a partisan resistance cell and falls in love with
the cell leader Dorotea (Urszula Modrzynska).
The fighters who risk their lives in desperate causes are almost always
young. The film pays tribute to those of the World War II generation
who resisted the Germans, and at the same time it marks the advent of
a new, more vital generation of Polish filmmakers. A Generation
was the beginning of a Polish cinema movement, and Wajda was its central
The influence of Italian neorealism is evident here, with the location
shooting and low-key, naturalistic acting. Wajda lets loose a couple
of times, with an impulsive assassination of a German officer, and later
a very dramatic shoot-out and chase through the streets. For the most
part, though, the feeling is somber, with an atmosphere of smoldering
resentment combined with inchoate longing in the midst of the pettiness
and brutality of occupation. The story retains some of the forms of
the state-required "socialist realism" style (there's even a rather
awkward scene where a mentor explains the principles of Marxism to the
hero) but it's tinged with tragic undertones and self-doubt--the fatalism
of youth--and this makes the film richer. The amibvalence is embodied
in one of the hero's comrades (Tadeusz Janczar) who seems more concerned
with proving his bravery than working together for the cause.
Non-Polish audiences might be confused by the conflict between Communist
and nationalist partisans, a bit of historical background that is naturally
taken for granted in the movie. Look for a very young Roman Polanski
in a small, almost wordless role as one of the cell members. All in
all, a moving and impressive debut, and the first in what became known
as Wajda's "war trilogy." The next two (increasing in excellence as
he proceeded) were Kanal
('57), and Ashes and Diamonds ('58).
REGENERATION (Raoul Walsh, 1915).
A New York City tough (Rockliffe Fellowes), the product of an alcoholic
home, tries to mend his ways when he falls in love with a missionary
worker (Anna Q. Nilsson).
Walsh had worked for D.W. Griffith, and his inventive use of cross-cutting
and close-ups in this film shows that he could even surpass the master.
A sequence featuring a fire on a ferryboat displays a realism that is
unusual for its time. The intertitles are kept to a minimum, and the
action is crisp, at least until the melodramatic plot gets out of hand
towards the end.
The picture is usually touted as the first feature-length gangster
movie. For most of the film, though, the criminal activity seems to
be confined to hanging out on street corners and playing dice, which
is pretty funny. Walsh shot the film in New York, and many of the performers
are non-professional, actual denizens of the streets. Fellowes looks
a lot like Marlon Brando, and he even has some of Brando's emotional
ambiguity. Nilsson, a great beauty, is quite good as the saintly heroine.
The story is based on the time-worn Victorian theme of the redemption
of a bad man through the love of a good woman. It's a credit to Walsh's
skill that the picture, although not completely free of a certain primitive
quality, seems completey heartfelt while also managing to get your blood
racing a bit.
VIVA VILLA! (Jack Conway, 1934).
Given that this MGM biopic of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa
gets almost every important fact of his life (and death) wrong, a good
movie might still have resulted if Ben Hecht and his uncredited co-writers
had presented an interesting or exciting hero. And it's conceivable
that this hero could be played by Wallace Beery, provided that he brought
some fire and menace to the role instead of his patented lovable dope
act from The Champ. But this film portrays Villa, and the Mexicans
who followed him, as simple-minded children, thus draining all potential
interest from the picture.
Things start out okay, with an opening scene of oppression and murder,
followed by the child Pancho's revenge. But then Beery shows up as the
adult Villa, who is played as an ignorant, foolish bandit, a stereotyped
mixture of sentiment and brutality. All of we see of him outside of
his military exploits are a series of low-comedy sketches centered on
his womanizing and political naivete. He can't even pronounce Spanish
words correctly, and he's surrounded by an entourage of Hollywood Mexicans
who might just as well all be named Speedy Gonzales. It is inconceivable
how this buffoon could inspire devotion in his followers, or lead anyone
into battle for a cause. There is no fervor or indignation in this character--he's
a plot device. It becomes perfectly evident that American condescension
towards Mexico has undercut all attempts to treat the subject of Villa
and the Revolution seriously. (And Villa's famous tussle with the American
general Pershing is conveniently omitted.)
Howard Hawks began work on the picture, but was supposedly fired over
an incident involving Lee Tracy's drunkenness. Tracy was replaced by
Stuart Erwin in the role of the American reporter, and I don't see any
trace of Hawks in the final product. In any case, this bit of backstory
is far more interesting than the film. Competent studio director Conway
moves things along, and one of the later battle sequences is done pretty
well, but the movie is simply an embarrasment.
HEARTS AND MINDS (Peter Davis, 1974).
With the nation's longest conflict winding down, and in the midst of
the Watergate scandal, Peter Davis created this documentary about Vietnam
that ended up winning an Oscar. Although the film takes us past various
historical signposts--American support of the French colonialist war,
Diem's assassination, Gulf of Tonkin, Tet Offensive, '72 Christmas bombing,
etc.--this is not a comprehensive history of the war. People who didn't
live through that time would have difficulty piecing together a coherent
account of the war from this film. Instead, Davis paints an impressionistic
portrait of the era, combining interviews, excerpts from period news
footage, and stunning on-the-ground scenes from the war itself, to present
a sort of counter-narrative to the standard version presented by the
Behind the horrific scenes of civilian deaths and villages being burned,
the familiar speeches by LBJ, Nixon, and the rest, Davis sees ingrained
attitudes. Most of the interview clips portray mindsets more than ideas.
Johnson aide Walt Rostow comes off as an arrogant prick who is unwilling
to admit mistakes. General William Westmoreland's statement that Orientals
don't put as much value on life as we do gives us a snapshot of his
blindness--the shots of Vietnamese women grieving over their dead children
belie the myth. Davis seems most interested in the need to believe in
the rightness of authority and the need to win. For the former he grants
generous time to ex-POW George Coker, who makes the "patriotic" case
with considerable eloquence and conviction. For the latter, he cuts
(jarringly, I think) to the hectoring of a coach during the half time
of a high school football game.
There's no question that this is an anti-war film, but what's different
here is that Davis seeks to understand rather than merely condemn, prompting
us towards self-examination. I would guess this is the rationale behind
the most curious sequence--two GIs relaxing with a couple of whores
in a Saigon brothel. It's an aspect of war rarely examined, but does
that make it irrelevant to the whole? Even if we were to accept that
a particular war is necessary, the glorification of war is a lie--it's
a hateful, dirty business, as any veteran of battle would tell you.
This film aims to debunk the illusion of glory through immersion in
the images of a painful era. Certainly with a subject of this magnitude
it was impossible to be comprehensive in a film of normal length. Hearts
and Minds doesn't go very deep into policy issues, but it was meant
to provoke us on an emotional level, and in that it succeeds. The disconnect
between patriotic rhetoric and the truth about the war is too great
to be swept under the rug. Three decades later, the enemy is still our
©2006 Chris Dashiell