Tag Archives: gangster

A mildly entertaining gangster exiled to Rhodes movie

A fish-out-of-water story from 1960 is “Surprise Package.” The fish is American gang-leader Nico March (Yul Brynner, between “The King and I” and “The Magnificent Seven”), who is deported to a Greek island. (though not named in the movie, it was filmed on Rhodes) He conspires to steal the bejeweled crown of the King of Anatolia(!) played by Nöel Coward, who was much better than he would later be as the Witch of Endor. The surprise to me is that the stripper bimbo moll as played by Mitzie Gaynor is charming and also the wisest character in the movie. I was underwhelmed by her in “South Pacific” and “Les Girls,” but she was funny trying to bring sense to her boyfriend. Brynner was dressed as if he wandered over from a production of “Guys and Dolls.” Apparently, some viewers couldn’t understand his fast talk, though it presented no problem to me.

surprise-package-movie-poster-1960-1010558491.jpg

George Coulouris provided the menace as an agent from the People’s Republic of Anatolia, determined to recover the ancient régime’s crown jewels. And the most comic character is the Hungarian spy (Guy Deghy) who responds to Brynner unmasking him: “”Of course, I am spying on you. That’s my profession. I’m a spy!”

A silly heist comedy and a silly rom-com, yet, but pleasant mindless entertainment from Art Buchwald and Staneley Donen. (Singin’ in the Rain, Charade) Coward and Gaynor perform the title song together btw. Donen made a far more interesting road picture in “Two for the Road” with Audredy Hepburn and Albert Finney in 1967.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Kitano & Co. Coming to America, Spreading Mayhem

22940.jpg

“Aniki,”(Brother, 2000) the movie written by, directed by, and starring Kitano Takeshi begins in Japan and invades America. Although Yamamoto is a common Japanese name, I suspect that the yakusa  protagonist is named Yamamoto, to evokethe name of the admiral who planned and executed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Yamamoto does not go to America planning to ravage it or take it over, After he foils one murder of his boss and his boss then ignores his advice and is gunned down, he needs to leave Japan for a while. After a few days of boredom in a Los Angeles hotel, he goes in search of his half-brother Ken (Kuroudo Maki), who is in one of LA’s myriad rough neighborhoods. Denny, a homeboy played superbly by Omar Epps (“Love and Basketball”), makes the mistake of trying to shake down the apparent tourist who has wandered where he does not belong.

It turns out that Ken is a low-level drug dealer and that Denny hangs out with him. Denny is not sure this “aniki” (brother) is the same man who nearly killed him. The development of their relationship beyond the point where Denny is calling Yamamoto “brother,” too, is the most interesting and original part of this exceedingly violent movie.

Yamamoto quickly dispatches to hell the cholos who are giving Ken and his friends trouble. The ad hoc gang with the very experienced gangster calling the shots — and doing much of the shooting — then massacres the cholos‘ bosses, the next higher echelons. With greater difficulty, they merge with the existing LA Japanese-American gangsters, and finally have to deal with the Italian-American Mafia. As in many recent gangster movies, the mafiosi are aging and tired, but they still command a lot of firepower. Like Admiral Yamamoto, yakuza Yamamoto’s initial successes are great, but fearless warriors eventually are overwhelmed by opponents with greater numbers and more armaments.

brother3.jpg

Early on, at least some of the violence is cartoonish and funny, but as the body count rises, the incessant killings are grim, and the only humor that remains is in Denny’s awed by admiring fealty to the mostly silent and very alien gangster who is not a “brother” in the sense of being black, but is an older brother in many ways. (It’s hard for me to believe that Kitano wrote Denny’s dialogue and suspect that Epps improvised it around the plotting Kitano supplied. Wherever the words came from, Epps sells them convincingly.) Similarly, the basketball scenes in the gang headquarters seem likely to have been suggested and developed by the actors (Royale Watkins and Kuroudo Maki),

Although fewer than half of the slayings occur on-screen, the violence in “Brother” is very brutal, not done in the John Woo or Jerry Bruckheimer cartoon style. And some of it stays with one a long time . The movie is definitely not for the squeamish.

Moreover, those not accustomed to the long takes and limited camera movement that is common in Taiwanese and Japanese movies may find some scenes static. There are fairly many calm talky scenes but so many erupt with violence that the viewer must not let his or her guard down. I think that 20-30 minutes could have been pruned.

Kitano is the best-known stand-up comic in Japan, though one would never guess that from “Aniki” or “Gohatto.” In the English-speaking world, he is frequently considered a Japanese Clint Eastwood. Kitano says that all they have in common is that they are actors who also sometimes direct, but the way Kitano has himself filmed as an impassive mask is similar to how Sergio Leone filmed Eastwood in the 1960s, and speaking with his gun and minimal dialogue seems very Dirty Harry. The humor in “Aniki” is like that of Eastwood, too: deadpan or delayed slow, malicious smiles.

©2001, Stephen O. Murray

A good woman redeeming more people in Ozu’s “Dragnet Girl”

dragnet girl.jpg

“Hijôsen no onna” (1933), available in a set of Ozu silent “crime movies” as “Dragnet Girl” is similar to “Walk Cheerfully” in portraying redemption of a hoodlum/thief (mugging rather than picking pockets) by a woman. This time, instead of spurning his moll companion, Tokiko (Tanaka Kinuyo, who would later become the muse of Mizoguchi Kenji and directed some films herself), the boxer turned robber, Jyoji (Oka Jôji) agrees to surrender to the police at the behest of the moll, who has been transformed by the Victor record-store clerk), Kazuko (Mizukubo Sumiko) who has also moved her man. Hiroshi (Mitsui Kôji), Kazuko’s school-skipping brother is training to be a boxer (as Jyoji has), at the gym where Jyoji still hangs out, but wants to be a thug and presents himself to Jyoji as an admiring disciple, though, as Jyoji tells him, Jyoji does not have a gang and is a small-time hoodlum.

DragnetGirl-Courtesy-of-The-Criterion-Collection.jpg

Kazuko twice goes to Jyoji to beg him to release her high-school student brother, which Jyoji twice does. Tokiko is initially jealous of Kazuko, whose humbleness and virtuousness has impressed her man. When Tokiko goes to confront Kazuko, she is also impressed by Kazuko’s demure goodness. This inspires her to turn over a new leaf. To do so requires being punished (imprisoned) first, a path of which Jyoji is very dubious.

There is a ludicrous “one last job” (could that not already have been a cliché in 1933?), a holdup of her boss (who has wanted to make her his mistress) at gunpoint. Obviously, the robbed man knows her and can aim the police at where she lives with Jyoji. The ending in which Tokiko convinces Jyoji to surrender to the police is very, very protracted.

There are many scenes like those of Ozu sound pictures in which the camera is fixed and people and/or things move through the frame. And many of the frames have the camera about a meter above the floor (eye level for adults kneeling on the floor). There are two incongruous pans around a coffee pot (shots of objects with no people: “pillow shots”), and some tracking shots in addition to those of people walking through the frame.

I don’t recall any signs in Japanese. The office of the boss has “PRIVATE” on its door, the boxing gym has Roman letters for its name, the boxing posters (including one featuring Jack Dempsey) are in English, and there is a poster (in French) for “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Kazuko is the only character who wears Japanese garb (kimonos), and the visuals look American (like Sternberg’s “Underworld” more than like Warner Brother gangster movies). Tokiko appropriates a pistol, albeit one significantly less long-barreled than the one that Jyoji uses in their final robbery. In 1933 I doubt anyone would guess that Ozu would later be considered “the most Japanese” of Japanese film-makers. At the time, he was fascinated by American technology, by German and American movies.

And there are no parents in either of the two Ozu movies about redeeming criminals (willing to pay for their crimes with imprisonment). Kazuko is something of a mother surrogate for Hiroshi and foreshadows the dutiful daughters of later Ozu movies, but she is his sister, not his mother. The focus is on the two women. Ryû Chishû was on hand already, but only as an unnamed policeman.

I guess there is a dragnet in the last part. The Japanese title refers to the yarn with which Tokiko starts to knit socks for Jyoji. After the two of them surrender, the incomplete first sock is tossed up on a wire by one policeman, and the movie closes with a shot of the ball of yarn back in the apartment. I have no idea why Ozu focused on that barely-begun domestic production.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

A Mouse-Eat-Mouse World I: “Pigs and Battleships”

I find it far easier to admire than to like the daring and the visual compositions in films made by Imamura Shohei (1926-2006), though I liked “Unagi” (The Eel, 1997) after its early grisly bloodletting and was more-or-less charmed by “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge,” his last feature film (2001).

Having apprenticed with Ozu on “Early Summer,” “Green Tea Over Rice,” and “Tokyo Story,” Imamura rebelled against both the upper middle-class subject matter and the unoving camera placement at about one meter from the ground or floor of Ozu. “I am interested in the relationship of the lower part of the human body and the lower part of the social structure on which the reality of daily Japanese life obstinately supports itself,” Imamura proclaimed, and not only did cameras move a lot in his movies, but they were more likely to look down at people than to look up at them.

Criterion has released three of Imamura’s 1960s black-and-white movies in a box titled “Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes.” Each has legible, grammatical subtitles, very good visual and audio transfers, sage contextualizing bonus features by Tony Rayns (ranging from 12 to 15 minutes in length) and 1990s tv interviews with Imamura.

Imamura’s breakout movie “Buta to gunkan” (Pigs and Battleships) must have been quite a sensation when it opened in Japan in 1961. At the time, prostitutes could not be shown in American movies. The Hollywood production code would also have prevented discussion of abortion, an,d even more, the main character having one.

During the first half of the movie, it seems that the main character is Kinta (Nagato Hiroyuki who had starred in Imamura’s 1958 movie “Endless Desire” and 1959 movie “My Second Brother,” and had a smaller role in Imamura’s “Insect Woman” and appeared in many other movies, including “Twin Sisters of Kyoto”). Kinta is a runty and emotionally immature yakusa. Having seen the movies Imamura made after P&B, I wasn’t really surprised that Kinta’s girlfriend Haruko (Yoshimura Jitsuko [Onibaba]) eventually takes over the movie. (For that matter, the woman who is the most ruthless character also took over his 1958 “Endless Desire.”) Haruko is pressured by her mother to become a “bar girl” like her cousin, “entertaining” Americans from the naval base at Yokosuka. Becoming the mistress of a sailor stationed there is preferable to taking on the drunken, boorish sailors on shore leave, but either kind provides luxury goods that are otherwise difficult to obtain in early-1950s Japan (the story takes place in 1954, I think).

hogsandwarships2

There are lots of real pigs in the movie: a nearly legitimate business of the gang is raising pigs on the food scraps of the American base and Kinta is in charge of the operation. The big, powerful ships are the icon for American might. It is the Japanese whom Imamura regards as the pigs, an anomic herd groveling for slops, living in pigsties. The Americans are drunk and horny and alarmingly large, but it is Japanese yakusa who ruthlessly exploit other Japanese, OK? The characters for “Japan” are emblazoned on the back of the jacket Kinta wears most of the time.

pigs-and-battleships)-screenshot.jpg

In his insightful discussion in a bonus feature for the Criterion edition, Tony Rayns opines that the movie was not anti-American, or if it is, it has to be considered considerably more anti-Japanese. I’d say the viciousness is all-Japanese, except that there are some Chinese gangsters involved

The yakusa here seem to me very prone to hysteria and very quick to assume the worst, including the malady of Kinta’s boss Himori (Mishima Masao). The women sometimes get worked up, but, like later Imamura female protagonist, Haruko is very resilient. Like the “Insect Woman,” after being raped, Haruko perseveres and prevails. She wants Kinta to go away with her, but he burns out spectacularly.

The yakusa are not glamorized: they grovel to the Americans, terrorize their countrymen and -women, are prone to hysterics, and are woefully incompetent. When they are disposing of a corpse, I told them (I frequently talk to the characters I watch from my couch) tht they needed to weight it down. If I know this, why don’t they? The pigs are sold (by different yakusa to different buyers at the same time) in a panic, and the business turns into an epic disaster in which it is impossible not to laugh at the last bursts of yakusa hysteria.

pigs_and_battleships_60.jpg

You might get the impression from what I’ve written that the movie is not subtle. You’d be right. It is pretty amazing, though, filmed in super-high-contrast black and white by Himeda Shinsaku — who went on to contribute his visual flair to “The Insect Woman” and “Intentions of Murder,” the other two early Imamura films packaged by Criterion as “Pigs, Pimps, & Prostitutes.”

The DVDs of the later two movies have interviews for Japanese tv following screenings of the movies. The P&B One has an hour-long episode of the series Cinéma du Notre Temps (“Shohei Imamura: The Freethinker,” dating from 1995). Imamura speaks about his early films in multiple settings (in subtitled Japanese) for the French tv documentary rather than sitting in a studio with the fawning Sato Tadao. (Two of the segments involve talking at Kitamura Kazuo, the lead in Imamura’s later “The Profound Desire of the Gods.”)

Some of P&B was shot in an elaborate studio set, though as much as could be shot in the streets and hovels of Yokosuka was filmed there. It is difficult to distinguish the studio from the location scenes and difficult to imagine that the final pig chaos could have been managed in either!

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray