The Delicate Flavor of Ozu Family Drama and Thick Meaty Cuts of American Film Noir – DVDs for the Week

13 July, 2010 (06:03) | by Sean Axmaker, DVD, Film Noir, Film Reviews | By: Sean Axmaker

The Only Son/There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu (Criterion)

It’s a cliché by now to call Yasujiro Ozu the most “Japanese” of Japanese directors, even if it is true to a point. The restrained style and quietly contemplative tone of his family dramas are a distinct and deliberate break from the western conventions that informed the work of his contemporaries (and, for that matter, his own early films), a concerted effort to reflect conservative Japanese ideals and mores. But the cliché misses a defining component of his films, namely that they are utterly contemporary to their times.

The serenity of family

Where Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi found international recognition with historical adventures and elegant period dramas about samurai warriors, royal figures, and fallen heroes, Ozu exclusively made contemporary films. His quietly understated family dramas and comedies take place in the modest homes and workplaces of everyday citizens trying to make a life for themselves and their children. His films are a veritable survey of Japanese society from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, a society straddling an age-old culture of expectations and codes of conduct on the one hand, and the stresses and demands of the modern world and its international influences on the other. The homes of our characters are models of simplicity and austerity, but just outside their windows are the smokestacks of industrial factories, roofs decorated with TV aerials, and webs of power lines and telephone poles hanging across the sky. These are the elements most often featured in his famous “pillow shots,” glimpses of the world around his characters which “cushion” the space between scenes which are among the most beautiful still life moments seen in 20th century cinema.

This double feature is a beautiful match-set of dramas in duty and sacrifice, but the difference in years in which they are both made and set (one is1936, the other 1942), in both the development of Ozu and the national character of Japan, creates distinctive contrasts in otherwise similar stories of widowed parents, only children, expectations and responsibilities.

There Was a Father (1942) is an indisputable masterpiece, a work of grace and simplicity that feels as timeless now as it was timely then. Chishu Ryu (Ozu’s longtime leading man and cinematic alter-ego) is Shuhei, schoolteacher and devoted single father to dutiful and adoring son Ryohei (Haruhiko Tsuda), who will follow in his father’s footsteps (national service aside, you gotta love a film where teaching the future generation is seen as one of the highest callings), even as that path separates them but for too few and too brief reunions over the next decades. Shuhei gives up teaching after one of his students drowns while on school excursion (Ozu’s direction is a model of restraint here: a shot of a shrine, followed by the calm lake, a capsized boat in the water, and then a funeral), a matter of responsibility for him, as is his son’s education. He moves to Tokyo for a job that will put his son through the best schools and the grown Ryohei (now played by Shûji Sano) takes over the responsibility of teaching that his father abandoned years before. Apart from brief visits that each anticipates with great excitement (which is, of course, expressed with all due restraint and dignity), that duty continues to keep them apart. Ozu’s direction is placid and restrained, but under the gentle rhythms and emotional suppression in the name of duty is a complex portrait of sacrifice and responsibility that is endured with obedience but little reward beyond a personal sense of accomplishment.

The Only Son (1936), which is also Ozu’s first sound feature (he resisted making the transition longer many fellow directors), is on the tragic end of the spectrum, a drama of disappointment in an era of economic hard times, where the only thing worse that professional failure is failing to live up to parental expectations. Disappointment seems inevitable from the quote that opens the film: “Life’s tragedy begins with the bonding of child and parent.” In this film, the parent is widowed mother Otsune (Cholo Iida), a poor textile worker in a rural town far from Tokyo, and the son a bright young schoolboy with an uncertain future: she can’t afford to send him to high school but is encouraged to make the sacrifices necessary to make it happen. “Be a great man and don’t worry about me,” she tells him in what will be their last time together for a decade. When they finally reunite in 1936, on a trip from her small factory town to the big city of Tokyo, she finds her grown son Ryosuke (Shinichi Himori) married, with a young son and a run down apartment in the grimy industrial section of the city, barely scraping by teaching night school. They stretch their means almost to the breaking point to show her a good time, which is only fitting. Ryosuke’s disillusionment with his life and his career is only compounded when he learns the extent of her sacrifice to put him through school.

There are no success fantasies in Ozu films—his early college comedies and depression-era silents notwithstanding, his films are generally about struggling working class or professional class workers whose idea of success is a good home, a general level of comfort and children placed in good marriages—but the level of disappointment and despair in this film is unusual and devastating. This is a Japan in serious depression and high unemployment and there is little of the buoyant comedy of his silent films of hard times (like Tokyo Chorus). Even the glimmer of hope for a better future seeded into the third act is all but snuffed out in the final images, as Otsune brags about her son’s success to her co-workers, then tells the true story when she shuffles off by herself and slumps into a heartbreaking resignation communicates a disappointment straight from the soul.

Gone fishing

The reunions of There Was a Father stand in sharp contrast to The Only Son. They are joyous occasions of mutual delight, which Ozu communicates with sublime, serene restraint: the two fishing in a stream, their poles arcing upriver in unison and slowly drifting down, or simply sitting quietly in one another’s company, enjoying the moment in silence. Their peace and contentment in one another’s company merges with the world around them as if part of the natural order: a moment of perfection. Yet while Ozu respects Shuhei’s integrity and sense of accomplishment, and Ryohei’s commitment to teaching the next generation, he implicitly questions the high cost of duty, the lonely years separation from his son. Ozu’s art is in mixing the sadness with respect, love and memories of their time together, while reminding us of the unacknowledged regret of a lifetime apart with a simple, heartbreaking look. Both films are wound around the collision of traditional culture and modern life and presented with quiet understatement, graceful formality and a bittersweet inevitability. (For more on There Was a Father, see my feature article on the Turner Classic Movies website here.)

The original 35mm materials no longer exist to either of these films (common to pre-World War II Japanese cinema) and the DVDs of both films are mastered from surviving fine-grain 16mm prints. Despite extensive digital repair, the films exhibit extensive chemical deterioration, surface scratches and print tears, as well as missing frames and footage, and the soundtracks are scratchy hissy. Given that, they are quite watchable and as good as these films will likely ever look.

“I think that Ozu is the greatest director ever to work in the history of cinema,” says film scholar and Ozu expert David Bordwell in the first of two interview featurettes he presents with fellow scholar and writing partner Kristin Thompson. Their first talk serves as an introduction to Ozu and the transition of his style and his subjects from the silent comedies to the sound era while the second focuses specifically on There Was a Father and its place in its culture and its era, as well as Ozu’s personal concerns independent of the cultural demands of wartime filmmaking. Also features a 19-minute interview with Japanese film historian Tadao Sato and booklets with each film featuring new essays by film scholar Tony Rayns and archival articles by actor Chishu Ryu and scholar Donald Richie. And as a side-note, I have to praise the gorgeous cover art and illustrations by Adrian Tomine, who beautifully communicates the look, tone and feel of the films with simple, understated line drawings.

The Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 5 (Warner)

The most famous artifacts that we have retroactively branded as film noir, from the iconic (The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity) to the cult (Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly) to the rediscovered oddities and minor classics (Murder By Contract, Blast of Silence) have largely arrived on DVD but the joys of exploring this unique cinematic slice of American cinema in the shadows is discovering nuggets of lesser-known films and their own attitudes and shades of gray. This set of eight films features one bona-fide classic of the genre and one minor masterpiece of noir mood and doom.

Richard Kiley stands up to the Phenix City rackets

Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955) is one of the most hard-hitting crime films of its era, a ripped-from-the-headlines drama of a town (Phenix City, Alabama, located near an army base to serve of less savory needs of our men in uniform—booze, girls and gambling) run by the rackets, inspired by real-life events and directed in a semi-documentary style with a tabloid punch. In fact it opens with real documentary reporting (by Clete Roberts) in an arch, overlong prologue that seems designed more to justify the violence to the censors than prepare audiences for the film to follow, but it serves its purpose in reminding us that the stakes are not just movieland stories but a real community under the thumb of the rackets. To further the identification, Karlson shot the film on location in the town and included locals as extras and bit players in the cast.

Richard Kiley (whose most famous noir role is as a sweaty, cowardly Communist spy in Pick-up On South Street) is the film’s unlikely hero, the son of a local lawyer (John McIntire) home from service in post-war Germany who resists taking on the forces of organized crime (and the police department that it has thoroughly corrupted) until the violence touches him personally. He’s no vigilante—the film makes a point of non-violent resistance—but he campaigns for State Attorney on a platform of cleaning up and he does. Karlson builds his portrait of corruption and capitulation slowly, with matter-of-fact violence in the gambling dens and roughneck bars leading up to brutal acts upon genuine innocents, including the murder of a child. Karlson’s crime bosses are not the trigger-happy thugs of the thirties gangster films or the showy would-be kingpins of the usual mob thriller, but men who look and act just like the local businessmen of the Chamber of Commerce, which makes their actions even more unconscionable. His superb handling of brutal violence that seems all the more terrible in the small town setting, but he also makes a more subtle point about segregation and racial violence. This is one of the great noirs from the “realist” ends of the spectrum.

Deadline At Dawn (1946), a wrong-man nightmare noir set over a long night in an urban jungle, is a film of shadows and secrets and moments of street poetry. It’s the only film directed by Harold Clurman, the influential theater director and producer who formed the Group Theater with Lee Strasberg, and comes from a Cornell Woolrich’s novel adapted for the screen by Clifford Odets, but the performances and dialogue are secondary to the tremendous mood, created in large part by the beautiful budget expressionist lighting of Nicholas Musuraca, who turns the backlot street sets into a nocturnal world of its own with pools light and shadow for the characters to emerge from and disappear back into. Bill Williams is a small town soldier in trouble in the big city, not much of an actor or a dynamic presence, but his stolid, gee-whiz flatness helps make him genuinely in need of protection from the predators of the city, especially when he wakes up with no memory of how came into possession of $1,400 and why there’s now a dead woman in the apartment he was in. Susan Hayward is a dime a dancer who longs for hearth and home and looks after the kid not out of romantic impulses but maternal/filial streak: her brother is in the Pacific and she see the kid as just a puppy. Her tough grace brings the character to life beautifully.

The script fluctuates wildly, with clunker lines amidst street poetry and tough guy jargon, but it only adds to the madness of the mood, with its sudden plot turns, wild goose chases, blind alleys and supporting characters who careen about until their action come back in unexpected ways. The inconsistencies and sudden acts of kindness—and the weird feeling that there is more to this little boy lost soldier that meets the eye—become a part of the unbalanced atmosphere over a long night. Paul Lukas is superb as a philosophical cab driver with his own benevolent streak (and his own secrets) and the eccentrics and suspicious characters that weave through the film are all given an element of humanity by Odets and Clurman. Not a masterpiece, but a marvelous mood piece wound through with character and texture.

The balance is a collection of cult pieces and noir oddities. Cornered (1945) reunites the Murder, My Sweet team of director Edward Dmytryk and star Dick Powell for a post-war mix of detective movie and war crime thriller. Desperate (1947), a bare-knuckle heist picture, is Anthony Mann’s first real film noir and a stand-out B-movie, starring Steve Brodie and great second-tier noir heavy Raymond Burr. Armored Car Robbery (1950) is a superb marriage of gangster getaway thriller and police procedural with gravel-voiced Charles McGraw on the trail of the crook (future Perry Mason co-star William Tallman) who shot his partner. Crime in the Streets (1956) is less film noir than stagey social drama, but it’s the film debut of John Cassavetes in a twitchy bit of juvenile delinquency on the road to murder. I wasn’t able to see the final films in the collection: Backfire (1950) with Virginia Mayo and Gordon MacRae and Dial 1119 (1950) with Marshall Thompson. The films I did see look terrific and The Phenix City Story and Crime in the Streets, the two productions from the fifties when all film were going widescreen (to differentiate themselves from TV), are matted to TV widescreen (16×9) dimensions, better approximating (if not quite matching) the original theatrical presentation. And as a side note, four of the films are from RKO and two from the independent studio Allied Artists; only one in the set is an actual Warner Bros. production.

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II (Collector’s Choice) (Sony)

The second collection of film noir classics from the golden age of Columbia Pictures picks up where the first one left off, even if the word “classics” is used in the generic sense (as in, they are all over fifty years old). What’s so marvelous about the set is that it spotlights lesser known and under-appreciated titles in the genre. The best known of the quintet is Fritz Lang’s Human Desire, adapted from Emile Zola’s La Bete Humaine and featuring his The Big Heat stars Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame (so perfectly tawdry), and the unknown factor belongs to City of Fear, an interesting but disappointing thriller from the director (Irving Lerner) and star (Vince Edwards) of the first set’s rediscovery Murder By Contract, but the other three are the set’s true gems.

Richard Quine’s Pushover plays like a low-rent Double Indemnity, with Fred MacMurray as a tired cop who falls for a gangster’s girlfriend (Kim Novak in her film debut), but under the doomed plot is a touching romance and loyalty. Quine finds a scuffed dignity in their connection, despite the tawdry path they take and makes the anonymity of the low-budget sets work to his benefit. Phil Karlson’s The Brothers Rico is a family drama set within the world of organized crime, where the loyalty to the organization collides with to loyalty to blood, and Richard Conte is superb as the brother blindsided by the difference.

And I love the poster, too

My personal rediscovery is Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall (1956), a classic noir nightmare with Aldo Ray as the innocent man on the run from the police (who think he’s guilty of murder) and brutal bank robbers (who framed him) and Anne Bancroft as the emotionally bruised model who puts her trust in the tormented innocent. It’s adapted from a novel by David Goodis, whose best work plumbed the despair and helplessness of innocents wrapped in webs of violence and persecution that dragged down their souls along with their lives, while Tourneur brings out the fighting side of this victimized innocent with a tough/tender performance from Ray, an artist by trade living in the shadows of society where every stranger is a potential enemy. “Why me?” asks Bancroft when she stuck in the web after sharing a not-so-innocent (but far from guilt) drink that leads to a run-in with a pair of thugs. He tosses off his answer like a man living the question: “I ask myself that every night.” Crisply directed, scripted with gems of hardboiled lines (“You’re asking for it” / “I’m in an asking position”) and superbly paced, it’s a film of darkness and light that ends up in the snowy mountains of Wyoming, where violence throws its long shadow over the purity of the snowy hills. James Gregory brings a paternal warmth to his dogged insurance investigator, almost a guardian angel over the man he’s shadowing, driven as much by an innate sense of justice as by his responsibility to find a cache of stolen money, and Brian Keith plays the most affable yet deadly criminal of his career. He doesn’t leave witnesses, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys his work.

The supplements are far less lavish that the previous Columbia noir collection, limited to brief interview featurettes with Martin Scorsese (on The Brothers Rico), director Christopher Nolan and actress Emily Mortimer, but the star attractions are the five films making their DVD debuts in superb transfers, all of them in their correct aspect ratio for the first time on home video.

Cross-published with seanax.com.

Available at Amazon:
The Only Son/There Was a Father: Two Films by Yasujiro Ozu (Criterion)
Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5 (Warner)
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Vol. 2 (Sony)

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