The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stray Dog

The first Akira Kurosawa movie I was introduced to was The Seven Samurai when I rented it from the video store after finding out it was the basis for one of my all-time favorite movies, The Magnificent Seven.  Now I loved the American remake that was transported to the west, but I liked Kurosawa's original with samurai fighting it out with bandits in 16th Century Japan. Reading up about it, I found Samurai is generally accepted as Kurosawa's best, but I was still curious to see what else his movies have had to offer.

A handful of movies later, I'm pretty sure I started at the top and have been going downhill since. I haven't hated any of the movies I've watched, but I really haven't loved them either.  The Hidden Fortress was good, I enjoyed High and Low, but Yojimbo and Throne of Blood both disappointed.  Now there's a third disappointment with 1949's Stray Dog, a departure from the usual Kurosawa samurai/historical flick.  Instead of roving samurais saving villagers or pitting gangs against each other, it's a crime drama that features two of the director's biggest stars, but in the end it never completely gels together.

A young police officer, Detective Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is heading home after a day at the shooting range when he realizes he's been pick-pocketed by a trashy thief who snares his department issued pistol.  He chases after him but is unable to catch him.  He reports the missing gun and is told to do everything possible to get his gun back.  At first, he has no luck as he explores the seedier parts of town, but when he teams up with a veteran officer, Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura), things start to come together.  But as the investigation continues and cases mount up where Murakami's gun is the involved weapon, can they track down the gun in time before more bodies start to pile up?

I've written before about Mifune who has become one of my favorite actors even when the movies he is in aren't always up to his performance.  Extremely physical but also able to nail the softer, quieter scenes, Mifune had quite a range as an actor.  I'd watch him read a telephone book if I had the chance, and even here as a young 29-year old actor he shows off the talent that would make him possibly Japan's biggest star.  His Murakami is extremely driven to fix the mistake he's made, but it's never over the top.  It is a more subdued part for the typically very verbose, even over the top actor but one I really liked even if we get to know very little about the detective.

Without any real semblance of humor, the pairing of Mifune and Shimura is one of the earliest examples I can think of with the buddy cop pairing.  The handling of the veteran cop vs. the inexperienced newbie is as tried and true as just about any relationship in a movie dealing with cops.  Shimura had this really quiet intensity about him in everything I've seen him in, and this intensity works to perfection with Mifune.  One scene especially stands out as they visit Shimura's home where his wife and kids are waiting for him. The two detectives talk about the nature of the job, of chasing society's slimiest and dirtiest and how it affects the way you look at the world.  Shimura's seen everything crime has to offer while Mifune still has just a bit of an innocent edge to him.  The pairing works well as it would several other times in Kurosawa movies, including Seven Samurai.

As much as I liked the two lead actors, they can't carry the movie through its more sluggish parts.  Reading the plot synopsis, I was intrigued about a story that followed two detectives as they ventured into the seediest parts of the criminal underworld.  But for a story that has a definite quasi-documentary feel to it, the pacing is awful.  An incredibly slow-paced montage shows Mifune's Murakami unsuccessfully looking for a black market arms dealer, dragging on and on.  That's the whole movie.  There's no urgency as the duo follows clues, talks to suspects, all in hopes of getting their hands on this one pistol.  It reminded me of a slow, extended episode of Law and Order but without any real payoff.

Now with the quasi-documentary feel, Kurosawa puts the camera right there in the filthy alleys, the poorly lit backrooms, the rank-smelling shanty towns, and gives a great feel of what detective work is like.  All his characters are always sweating, and you get a sense that everyone had to have smelled to the high heavens in this investigation.  The setting is great, but the story doesn't quite keep up.  Positives are here, especially Mifune and Shimura, but this was still a disappointment, more so because of the talent involved.

Stray Dog <---TCM clips (1949): **/****

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