With a remake from Mike Nichols still on the cards for next year from a David Mamet script it seems a good time to look at Akira Kurosawa's classic again. The film is, typically for the great Japanese director full of pleasant surprises. Not the least of these is that the film is based on a police procedural thriller by American crime-writer Ed McBain. Toshiro Mifune plays Kingo Gondo (didn't GODZILLA fight him once?) who is approached by the board of the shoe manufacturers where he is the head of the factory to help them in a takeover bid. He declines because he is secretly planning his own takeover in a multi-million yen deal that must be concluded by the next day. As his assistant is about to leave with the cheque that will conclude the takeover he receives a phonecall that his son has been kidnapped. He is prepared to pay the ransom knowing that it will ruin him. Almost immeadiatly he discovers that the kidnapper has grabbed the wrong child and has taken his chauffer's boy. Realising his mistake the kidnapper rings back and says that Gondo must pay anyway or the chauffer's boy will die. Will he pay the money and ruin himself ? This moral question is only the start of this very tense film. The bulk of the plot (the films runs for well over two hours) is taken up by the detailed investigation of the police as they track down the kidnapper. Kurosawa creates an almost hypnotic rhythm as the cops go about their monotonous and seemingly impossible task until slowly even the most insignificant seeming piece of evidence slips into place. But Kurosawa never loses sight of the human story which centres on Gondo - his confusion at the choice that he has to make (we know from the beginning that he is a ruthless businessman but simply by highlighting his concern for the quality of his factories products and his care of its good reputation Kurosawa tells us he is a man with values). As I have said Kurosawa is full of little surprises...as his camera tracks through a shanty town we hear a very unlikely piece of music playing, schubert's "The Trout", the sudden use of a coloured
detail in an otherwise black and white film (many years before Spielberg did the same thing in SCHINDLER'S LIST) and the great Japanese actor Takashi Shimura in a relatively minor role - but one that needs the natural authority he brings to the role. Great orchestrated set pieces, of course, such as the tense scenes on the train, the police de-briefing during a heatwave, the nightclub scene with lots of European faces in the crowd as they twist the night away and the truly eerie drug den with the threatening, pathetic, zombie-like drug addicts. Kurosawa's use of the cinemascope format is quite brilliant, showing (what we knew already) that he is one of the cinema's masters of composition.
Despite Hollywood's current obsession with remakes - a remake of this doesn't fill me with dread when I see the names of Nichols and Mamet connected with it. Western cinema has not done bad by Kurosawa - THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE RUNAWAY TRAIN were excellent movies and I'm rather fond of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and LAST MAN STANDING. Akira Kurosawa loved Westerns and in addition to Ed McBain here, he has used Shakespeare and even Dashiell Hammett as jumping off points for his own films and we must not forget that his HIDDEN FORTRESS was partly responsible for the idea behing STAR WARS. It seems a rather fruitful cross pollination for once, although maybe we should charitably forget BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and THE SAVAGE SEVEN. Rating *****