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Saturday, July 30, 2011

YOIDORE TENSHI / DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948)

Akira Kurosawa was a ‘natural’ from the moment he called his first shot, but it took half a dozen films before he became ‘Kurosawa.’ And this is the film that did it. Takashi Shimura, already a regular, stars as a cantankerous middle-aged doctor who curses his slum clientele & dreams of a high-class trade. Yet he can’t keep from worrying too much about his ungrateful patients, even that new TB case, a violent, self-destructive local Yukuza kingpin: Toshiro Mifune in his first of 13 Kurosawa pics.* While these two butt heads over treatment options, Mifune’s rapid physical decline is impacting on his neighborhood clout. An old rival, fresh out of jail, is scoping out Mifune’s territory as well as a former lover, now the good doctor’s assistant. Kurosawa’s emerging style orchestrates in quick-step, with info-packed compositions and an occasional reflective moment between skillful set pieces, leading to a fight in a narrow hallway that literally paints Mifune into a corner before climaxing with a visual epiphany accomplished by simply opening a double door. Unforgettable stuff. Don’t let a bit of corny melodrama & overstated acting (or some pat philosophizing) put you off. You’d be missing a lot, especially Mifune's star-making turn of a glamorous, fatalistic gangster that must have hit Japanese cinema like Cagney in THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31 and prefigures Brando & Elvis. (Check out that hair!)

DOUBLE-BILL: Shimura & Mifune would reunite next year for Kurosawa’s first flat-out masterpiece, STRAY DOG; then RASHOMON as chaser.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Technically, Kurosawa is considered the most Western-influenced of classic Japanese helmers, yet his themes often decry the rise of Western culture. Here, for example, the gangsters adopt a Western style in clothes, drink & music. So too Mifune’s anti-hero with his über-West attitudes & look. The pic was a sensation partly because everyone wanted to emulate this cool cat.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: *In RED BEARD/’65, their final collaboration, Mifune more-or-less plays the wise old doctor played here by Shimura, though Kurosawa lets him kick butt to close Part I of that frustrating pic.

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