Saturday, July 18, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Stray Dog (1949)

I continued my rewarding exploration of the films of Akira Kurosawa with STRAY DOG (1949), an excellent police procedural.

Bit by bit I've begun trying out Japanese cinema via films directed by Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, and to date I've found a great deal to like. It's a wonderful thing to have an entire new world of films to enjoy! This was the third movie I've seen in which Kurosawa directed Toshiro Mifune, the others being THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958) and HIGH AND LOW (1963). HIGH AND LOW remains my favorite, and STRAY DOG slipped into the middle slot of the three in terms of ranking my enjoyment.

STRAY DOG, called NORA INU in its native Japan, was cowritten by director Kurosawa. It reminded me very much of other favorite U.S. procedurals of the same era, THE NAKED CITY (1948) and SCENE OF THE CRIME (1949). In each of these films an older, wiser cop shares his wealth of knowledge with a younger, "green" partner as they prowl the mean streets looking for a killer.

The viewer is immediately plunged into action as Detective Murakami (Mifune) discovers his Colt pistol has been stolen from his pocket on a crowded bus. He is horribly embarrassed and fears the loss of the weapon will cost him his job; however, the veteran cops are quietly supportive, with one kindly detective starting Murakami's quest to find the gun by pointing him to files on pickpockets.

The gun ends up in the hands of Yusa (Isao Kimura), who uses it to commit robbery and murder. The guilt-ridden Murakami is even more determined to find his gun, before someone else is shot.

Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura) guides the younger detective, teaching him not only how to work a crime investigation but how to cope with the pressures of the job. Murakami feels a bit sorry for the criminal, a fellow veteran, saying he could have taken a wrong path in life himself, but Sato counsels him that he needs to put empathy for criminals aside and keep his eye on the job, which is protecting the public.

Sato also teaches Murakami how to be positive and make the best of a bad situation, pointing out near the end that the loss of his gun ironically led the police to track down more weapons which were in criminals' hands.

There's a wonderful scene where Sato takes Murakami home for dinner and we glimpse Sato's wife and three young children. In showing Murakami his family, it seems as though Sato was also sending Murakami another, more subtle, message about keeping his perspective. It reminded me of the scene in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951) a couple of years later, when the emotionally beaten down cop played by Robert Ryan asks veteran cop Charles Kemper "How do you live with yourself?" and the wiser, calmer Kemper replies "I don't, I live with other people."

I was struck that while there are fascinating cultural differences in the characters' lifestyles and interactions, at the same time STRAY DOG feels very much like an American "cop film," with the younger detective learning from his partner as well as hard experience. They pound the pavement, coping with blistering heat as they take two steps forward and one step back while sifting through clues and connecting the dots. And, of course, there are universal themes in both the U.S. and Japanese crime films, examining honor, responsibility, and the ethics of hard, sometimes tedious work versus grabbing what you want.

One of my favorite set pieces, which called to mind both ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950) and EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962), takes place at a packed baseball stadium. The police are anxiously trying to track down a criminal while making sure none of the spectators are hurt.

As a baseball fan I was fascinated that the umpire in this sequence yelled "Play ball!" in English. A side benefit to seeing the film is that it sent me to the computer afterwards to research more about the history of baseball in Japan! A few days ago, after seeing LONESOME (1928), I was inspired to learn more about the history of the Long Beach Pike. I love when the experience of seeing a movie extends beyond what is seen on the screen; watching movies can be enriching in a variety of ways.

The only part of the film I didn't care for was the opening credits, with a dog's creepy endless barking! I might have ended up turning on the mute button until the credits were over (grin).

STRAY DOG runs 122 minutes. It was filmed by Asakazu Nakai.

STRAY DOG is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. I rented it from Netflix.



Blogger Kristina said...

Interesting, look forward to seeing this one, glad it compares well to High & Low. Random thoughts: interesting how much longer run time this and H&L have (2 1/2 hrs), compared to Hollywood procedurals of those same years. Also, I didn't research this so it might be a known fact already, but knowing how Sergio Leone liberally borrowed from Kurosawa, I wonder if the dog during these credits influenced Leone's famous movie openings where the windmill squeaks endlessly (Once Upon a Time in the West) or the phone rings endlessly ( America).

11:42 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Kristina! I didn't know about those Leone openings, and it certainly sounds to me as if Kurosawa could have influenced them. Exact same thing...the dog just barked and barked and was weird. I'm fascinated to hear about the windmill and the phone in the Leone films.

Good point re the relative running times. While I found HIGH AND LOW so compelling that the fairly long running time was fine, STRAY DOG probably could have stood to have a few minutes carefully trimmed off, such as the sequence where the young detective goes "undercover" looking for black market sales of guns. Let me know what you think when you catch it!

Best wishes,

2:40 PM  

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