The 1949 Kurosawa police procedural “Stray Dog” (Nora Inu’) is a bit long with a running time of 122 minutes. And there have been so many representations of pairs of policemen working together since then that some of the freshness it must have had in 1949 has dissipated, but the mortified (guilt-ridden more than ashamed) rookie, Murakami (Mifune Toshirô), who had his pistol stolen on a very crowded bus on a very hot August day needs a more experienced calming influence, which Detective Satô (Shimura Takashi) supplies.
The pistol starts being used in robberies, including one in which a woman is killed for 50,000 yen. Murakami is told to hang out in a district where a gun dealer (lending out rather than selling pistols) will approach him if he looks sufficiently desperate. He is, in fact, pretty desperate to retrieve his gun and agrees to trade his rice ration card for one. The over-eager rookie scares away both the man who was going to return the gun to the dealer and to the dealer who has that man’s rice ration card (and, thus, identification).
This leads to a bravura sequence in a packed baseball station in which the policemen manage to find a needle in a haystack, the dealer Honda. This enables them to seize his inventory of guns and Honda aims them at a dancer Naimiki Harumi (Awaji Keiko) whom the robber with the gun, a veteran who was robbed on the way home (as was Murakami), Yusa (Kimura Isao, who would go on to play the lovelorn one of the “Seven Samurai” and would be on the police side of the law in “High and Low”) regularly visits.
Though the intense Mifune and the wise and genial Shimura are the focus of the film, Awaji has the opportunity to show the widest range of emotions and to evolve more than any other character in the movie. There are some comic moments to relieve the intensity of Murakami’s desperation, and the initial chase, and even an idyll at home with Satô’s citations, wife and three children.
If I had to guess the prime visual inspiration, my guess would be Sternberg, though the stretch in which Murakami is caroming around dubious neighborhoods provides montages that are almost Eisensteinian, though what is on display is more akin to Italian neorealism (De Sica’s “Bicycle Thief’ in particular). Kurosawa said he was influenced by the novels of Georges Simenon (though Maigret had nothing like so ardent a young partner as Satô gets in Murakami) and that the script was influenced by Jules Dassin’s 1948 “Naked City” (which also lacks a genuine partner for Barry Fitzgerald’s experienced detective; it was an exemplar of location shooting for a policier, for sure).
The visual compositions and the acting are superb. Nakae Asakazu’s cinematography, Masuyama’s art direction, and Shimura’s acing all won Mainchi awards. Other than going on a bit too long (especially the climactic chase, and especially as an attempt to imitate Simenon’s economy), my only reservation is with the simplistic account of becoming addicted to violence with made dog analogies supplied by Detective Satô (and the slavering dog under the opening credits).
I guess that Murakami feels in danger of becoming a stray dog himself, if he loses his position as a policeman for his carelessness in losing his weapon. His superiors do not seriously consider this, but this fear also opens a sort of identification with the criminal who will turn out to be the bitter veteran Yusa, though Yusa feels none of the responsibility Murakami does and even at the closest approach to being unhinged is not like a dog with rabies. Well,… there is the monomania that Satô tells Murakami is characteristic of mad dogs and that Murakami embodies even more than Yusa.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray
(I have no idea why the font size of what I pasted varies!)