Thursday, March 24, 2011

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960)

Some writers, like Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward in their Film Noir encyclopedia, have claimed that film noir is a "wholly American film style."  For many, film noir can only refer to the set of black and white American crime films produced during, and in the first decade and a half following,  WWII -- the films to which French critics first applied the label.   With all due respect to Silver and Ward, whose book demands a place on the shelves of any serious film fan, we don't cotton to that around here.  It's all fine, well and good for film historians in love with typologies to narrowly define and sub-divide genres all they want; I'm sure it makes a great parlor trick to impress the ladies.  But I don't see much use for that way of thinking.  As my grandfather probably never said, "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it's probably a duck, or at least an advanced robotic simulation of a duck."  So film fans interested in following the hunted men and dangerous women through shadowy urban mazes are bound to eventually find themselves in spaces far removed from post-war America.  The noir thread continues, of course, in subsequent American films like Blade Runner and Brick, but it also crosses the oceans to be woven into the tapestries of other national cinemas.  In England, for example, the filmmakers at Hammer Studios developed the skills in gloomy atmospherics that would make the studio's name synonymous with horror while working on assembly line noirs.  In France, Jean-Pierre Melville would meld the genre with a chilly existentialism that elevated it to high art.  And in Japan, there was Nikkatsu.

While the integrated studio system was already showing signs of its inevitable collapse in the United States by the late 1940's, in Japan a similar system proved robust and durable well into the video age.  As in the United States, this fostered the development of "house styles" in which a shared talent pool was able to turn out one movie after another, often variations on successful themes.  Nikkatsu, Japan's oldest major movie studio,  is probably most famous in the West for the "Roman Porno" genre it came to rely on in the 1970's.  Prior to that time, however, it found enormous success in a run of dozens of youthful action pictures, heavily influenced by American film noir.  Mark Schilling describes the culture of these pictures well:  "Nikkatsu Action films evoked a cinematic world neither foreign nor Japanese, but a mix of the two, where Japanese tough guys had the swagger, moves and even long legs of Hollywood movie heroes.  Where the Tokyo streets, Yokoyama docks and Hokkaido plains took on an exciting, exotic, aura, as though they were stand-ins for Manhattan, Marseilles or the American West."

While many of the filmmakers and performers working on these films have made a lasting mark on world film with their work -- none have the genre-transcending reputation of director Seijun Suzuki.  He took the raw materials that, in other hands, could lead to by-the-numbers program pics, and added a volatile energy, a visual wit, and a wicked sense of humor that made his films unique among his contemporaries.  Of course, unique is often not profitable -- after 1967's Branded to Kill, which Nikkatsu studio heads found incomprehensible, bombed at the box office Suzuki was fired from the studio.  Nevertheless, in the eleven years he directed for Nikkatsu Suzuki created no less than 40 films, many of which are recognized as classics today.

Take Aim at the Police Van is one of five Suzuki-helmed films released in 1960.  Michitaro Mizushima plays Tamon, a prison guard out to find the men responsible for the attack on a police van which left two men dead.  His search brings him into Japan's seedy underworld where it's seemingly a short step from pimping prostitutes to onsens and inns to kidnapping women to be sold into sex slavery.  Along the way he confronts Yuko (Misako Watanabe), a femme fatale in the classic vein.

It's the philosophical tension between Tamon and Yuko that provides the film its slim emotional content.  Tamon, as he often insists, believes that people are fundamentally decent and that even in the worst criminals there's goodness buried deep within which it's his job to nourish.  Yuko, on the other hand, sees people as merchandise, pure and simple.  Both are shocked by the other's perspectives and over the course of the film both seem to drift into the gray area between their positions; Tamon's faith in humanity is tested by the degradation all around him, while his heroism inspires a change of heart in Yuko.

Police Van seems to be something of a transitional film for Suzuki.  In many ways, it's a very traditional crime film (although certainly seedier than anything permissible in the U.S. under the Hayes Code.)  I'm not sure I would have guessed that this was a Suzuki film had I not known.  Yet lurking at the edges are signs of all the elements that would define his majors works at Nikkatsu.  A bumbling thug trips down a flight of steps, landing face down in the middle of the street.  A hitman fetishistically caresses his rifle, which he also uses to store his chewing gum for later when it's time to take a shot.  A hooker bursts into an onsen hallway clutching the bloodless wound where she was shot through the breast by an arrow.    Perhaps most importantly, a propulsive jazz soundtrack provides the youthful energy lacking in the lead. (Seriously, Mizushima looks like he could be the father of Joe Shishido, the man who would be Suzuki's most memorable lead in films like Youth of the Beast and Branded to Kill.)

At a trim 79 minutes, Police Van is a fast-paced and engaging crime-film, made even better by our knowledge of what its idiosyncrasies foreshadowed.

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