Welcome to the first entry in what I intend to fashion into a weekly series. As the name suggests, the focus here is Criterion Collection films, the classics and masterpieces and unequivocal essentials that hold sway in cinematic canon. My goal? Grab two random entries from off of my shelf, or stream them through Netflix Instant, and discuss, review, and ruminate upon them here, examining each within both the context of the films themselves and within the greater context of their release periods. Without anymore delay, let’s start right in with:
The Naked City, Jules Dassin, 1948
It’s interesting that American filmmaker Jules Dassin’s most significant contribution to cinema is 1955’s Riffi; at a glance, his filmography singles him out as a very visible force in film noir during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Riffi‘s impact can still be felt today in just about any heist film you can name, but between that picture and The Naked City I’d say that it’s up for grabs as to which wields more influence. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Law and Order, if you’ve ever enjoyed any procedural film, then you probably owe a measure of thanks to The Naked City.
I’ll make one admission right away: as far as Criterion films go, this isn’t one of the most impressive ones you’ll ever watch. For some reason, criticizing classic films has become somewhat gauche these days, and while I liked The Naked City well enough, it’s only worthy of the Criterion stamp by virtue of how many movies and television shows share enough DNA with it to claim a family resemblance. Dassin’s film may be one of the best examples of how cruel time can be to classic cinema; The Naked City hasn’t aged very well, and feels very much like a film of its time capable only of really speaking to cineastes hungry for classic movies and veteran movie-goers. It’s the sort of film that will elicit giggles and snickers from a modern mainstream audience.
If it sounds like I’m being reductive, I’m not– the point I’m making is that The Naked City is clearly a product of its time. But more than that, it’s just not a high quality film taken on its own. It’s written thinly enough that the central mystery– involving the murder of a young girl by two thugs in the middle of the night, and the subsequent police effort to bring her killers to justice– adds up to nothing more than the most by-the-numbers whodunit imaginable, rife with flat, bland characters who don’t truly develop much beyond the few characteristics bequeathed them by Dassin. (Though giving credit where it’s due, Barry Fitzgerald’s turn as Detective Muldoon is nevertheless immensely entertaining.) Put simply, The Naked City is fairly rote– even if we don’t judge by today’s standards.
So why is it a Criterion release? Because all of its weaknesses– the script, the characters, the overuse of voice-over narration, the plot– are veiled behind its successful attempt at attaining authenticity. Rather than shoot The Naked City on a studio backlot, Dassin chose to film on location in New York, and that decision changed the production for the better. For all of its dramatic tropes and qualities, the film feels real, likely by design, as the film itself is shot very much in a documentary style. Even the final voice-over line the movie ends on– “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”– tries to sell Dassin’s picture as real, and maybe an argument could be made that the performances and banality of the script are meant to support that particular vision. Whatever the case may be, it’s that verisimilitude that makes The Naked City special and worthy of commendation despite the film itself being rather run-of-the-mill.
Drunken Angel, Akira Kurosawa, 1948
It might be somewhat unfair to Mr. Dassin that the same year he released his own post-war film noir, so too did Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa. Stacked side by side, there’s little comparison; Drunken Angel far and away stands out as the superior film of the two. Despite existing in the same narrative milieu as one another, Kurosawa’s film differs markedly from Dassin’s– in no small part because Kurosawa, in making Drunken Angel, chose to embrace the tropes of the noir genre rather than shoot for a more rigid sense of realism.
As a matter of clarification, Drunken Angel does not uphold the mores of film noir so as to revel in them. Instead, Kurosawa’s interested in deconstructing the archetype. The gleeful subversion he performs extends outside of the boundaries of story and plot; he’s not just picking apart noir, he’s silently and firmly protesting post-war censorship as well. Drunken Angel was shot during the American occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1951, and Kurosawa found himself forced to comply with a censors board instituted by the U.S. government which forbade any criticism of the occupational effort to be included in Japanese cinema.
Of course, a man like Kurosawa couldn’t be deterred by such rulings. The elements of the film which frown upon the American occupation aren’t overt, but they nonetheless exist in the Western clothing worn by the characters, the jazz club used as a hideout for Yakuza thugs, and– maybe most importantly– the bubbling bog of poisonous muck used as a recurring central location throughout the film. Watching the film as a modern American is an interesting experience; Kurosawa, for obvious reasons, doesn’t employ a cinematic language that’s openly accusatory, but in a world where American soldiers have only just departed Iraq, the quiet sense of condemnation resonates strongly.
The drunken angel of the title refers to either Sanada (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura), a bitter, alcoholic, no-nonsense doctor who’s quick to berate his patients for failing to take care of themselves, or Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s incomparable screen surrogate), the morose mob tough guy who goes to Sanada to receive treatment for a wound sustained in a fight with a rival gang. With their gruffness and respective disillusioned world views, both men feel right at home in the gritty noir world where they frequently find themselves at odds with one another. But Drunken Angel is about exposing Matsunaga’s humanity. Once diagnosed with tuberculosis, we become aware immediately that he’s just a frightened man putting on a facade to deflect attention; Sandada’s other TB patient, a much younger girl, proves to be far, far braver. Matsunaga’s not cut out for the life of a Yakuza. Despite his bouts with rage and his love of the drink, he’s a gentle soul, not the sort of man made to intimidate and browbeat people.
Kurosawa best underscores this in the film’s climactic violent duel between Matsunaga and Okada, the former head of the gang Matsunaga runs at the start of the picture. As the fight commences, Matsunaga looks petrified; as it continues, he only appears more and more afraid. Interestingly, Okada doesn’t come off any better, and both men eventually end up on a paint-soaked floor, scrabbling for purchase with fear written all over their faces. It’s a precursor to Rashomon‘s depiction of the tale of the woodcutter (also portrayed by Shimura), in which the samurai and the brigand engage in a pitiful battle far removed from the scene described in the bandit’s story. In Drunken Angel, Kurosawa relieves these characters of their machismo and deflates their puffed-out chests, breaking through their false bravado to make them almost shamefully human; it’s one of the strongest early portrayals of the humanist underpinnings that define so much of his work.