Thursday, January 21, 2010

Akira Kurosawa's STRAY DOG

After watching some early Polanski films last week I've been thinking about pulp fictions and genre films.

Many of the finest filmmakers did their finest work in what some, incorrectly, call the lesser genres. Billy Wilder's film noir "Double Indemnity," an adaptation of the James M. Caine novel, compares well to his original "Sunset Boulevard," and in some ways paved the way for that later work. Elsewhere on this blog I've offered Wilder's account of working on that adaptation with Raymond Chandler, from a conversation I had with the director shortly before he died. (It was a contentious relationship and in the end Wilder was legally enjoined by the studio from brandishing his riding crop during working hours. A limit was also placed on the number of calls he was allowed to accept from young ladies.)

This week I've been re-watching Akira Kurosawa's film noir "Stray Dog" (1949). That film had its genesis as an unpublished police procedural novel that the great Japanese filmmaker himself wrote over a feverish two month period.

"Stray Dog" tells the story of the frantic search by a rookie cop (Toshiro Mifune) for his stolen Colt pistol, which to his shame had been lifted from him on a bus. A manhunt, lead by the rookie's mentor, begins after the stolen gun is used in a murder. The action throughout takes place during a heatwave in a bombed-out post-war Tokyo. One thing that gives the film such psychological depth is that both cop and killer are from the same background and are the same age... though it's never mentioned both must have been recently de-mobilized from the defeated Imperial Army. There's a sense of "there but for the grace of God go I."

The mini documentary in the Criterion Collection edition recounts a stir over the opening shot of a dog panting feverishly. The film premiered during the American occupation of Japan, and a busybody American woman associated with the ASPCA accused Kurosawa of having injected the dog with rabies to get that wild-eyed effect. This was in the wake of post-war revelations about "scientific" experiments performed by the Japanese imperial army. Apparently this woman was persistent, obsessed even, and brought suit. It was the one blot on an otherwise happy production.

Of course, to get the shot Kurosawa simply had his team take the dog on a run for a few minutes on a hot day.

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