Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - December 2005
Dames (1934)
Bay of Angels
No Fear, No Die
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
The Citadel (1938)

Signs and Wonders
A Film Snob's Favorites of '05

The Passenger (1975)

The Squid and the Whale
plus Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinematheque



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 Ishirô Honda).

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 and realistic.

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 figure.

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 media.

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 own complacency.

©2006 Chris Dashiell