Archive for Akira Kurosawa

The Sunday Intertitle: Prairie Poirot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2018 by dcairns

Such sloppy speech: clearly the intertitle of a desperado!

THE ORE RAIDERS (1927) is another “Worthless Willie” Wyler short of no particular ambition, doubtless churned out in a week, with a star, Fred Gilman, who’s better at staying on a horse in tricky situations than he is at expressing emotion or holding the eye.

From this historical distance, though, it’s quaint and charming to see a western hero who’s clean-cut, innocent, and shares affectionate banter with his horse (THE LONE RANGER recently attempted the clean-cut, innocent part, but didn’t give Silver enough of an active listening role).

Wyler is developing his craft. In a conversation between Gilman and a rancher who’s reluctantly in league with the bad guys, we cut from a close-up of the rancher reacting to something offscreen, to an optical POV insert of the Texas Ranger badge in Gilman’s pocket and back to the worried rancher, a quasi-Hitchcockian moment that renders psychology visible. Nothing too remarkable about this, but B-westerns typically just consist of wide-ish shots of people doing stuff, and some landscapes.

But THE ORE RAIDERS is a kind of frontier detective story, depending on the following of clues, and Wyler knows to present these signifying objects from his characters’ viewpoints rather than simply as close-ups.

The cigarettes match! Jake Petersen has been here!

Other evidence it’s a Wyler: cutting straight down the line into a scene, ignoring the 45-degree rule that angles are supposed to change. Sometimes, as when Monty Clift silently decides to ditch his lover in THE HEIRESS, this forward jolt can express a character point, dramatizing a reaction. When it just feels like the director popped a lens on because he couldn’t be bothered moving the camera round, it’s less satisfying. (Wyler was tireless in his retakes, but covered the action fairly minimally.)

Again, WW invents fresh ways to dismount his hero — at the climax, Gilman rides up to a bad guy and throws himself from the saddle before the horse has even stopped, knocking the bad guy down then dragging him to his feet and punching him out before the dust has even settled. He’s used himself as a projectile, before that was either popular or fashionable.

Wellman also has a very long lens for filming Gilman riding down steep hills, which he does A LOT. He doesn’t use it as extensively as Leni Riefenstahl or Akira Kurosawa but he does resort to it, proving this was a stylistic choice available before OLYMPIA and THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

The bad guy is not only the target of Gilman’s investigations, but his rival for the girl, making this movie almost identical to last week’s Sunday short subject, THE TWO-FISTER. Perhaps the very lack of variety in these oaters drove Wyler to be more inventive and develop his skills, whereas other directors got stuck in a rut and would still be making the same stuff when TV came in. Not a bad life if you enjoy outdoorsmanship, but no way to be remembered. Wyler was already shooting features, and by 1929 would be breaking away from westerns with THE SHAKEDOWN and THE LOVE TRAP (a part-talkie). Finally he could photograph some rooms, and take his hat off.


Let the stick decide

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by dcairns


Early in John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, Henry Fonda drops a stick to decide which path to take in life.

Scene one of Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO, Toshiro Mifune throws a stick in the air to decide which route to take at a fork in the road.


Now, we know Kurosawa idolized Ford, so do we think this superficial similarity is a conscious homage/steal? I’m inclined to think so. YOJIMBO is Kurosawa’s most American film, since it adapts Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and also steals a scene (the one with the giant sadistic thug) from the Alan Ladd film of The Glass Key (or from the book: I don’t remember the scene, but I expect it’s there).

Kurosawa kept a signed picture Ford had given him, and I think also wore a Fordian hat.

Ford to Kurosawa: “You really like rain, don’t you?”

A Lesson from Kurosawa

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 10, 2016 by dcairns


The Great A.K. filmed a fight scene in a wind storm for SANSHIRO SUGATA. Normally the wind would have been produced by wind machines, traditionally aircraft propellers, but this was wartime, and the propellers were all in use, keeping planes in the air to kill us, so he had to wait for real storms. He wrote later that the trouble with filming in inclement weather is that your mind tricks you into believing you’ve got all the coverage you need before you really do. He really struggled to cut the sequence together.

The way I described it today, after filming in rain, snow and icy winds, with no shelter and no toilet facilities and clothing that proved less waterproof than I’d hoped (including the footwear), is that your brain tells you to prioritize getting somewhere warm ahead of all other considerations. The trouble is you then have the rest of your life to look at your film and ask, “Why didn’t I spend five more minute on that?”

Kurosawa says that when you are tired and uncomfortable, the solution is just to carry on and film twice as much material as reason tells you is needed. He applied this lesson to the battle in the rain on SEVEN SAMURAI and his toes turned permanently black from frostbite. Kurosawa was a tough S.O.B. Unfortunately, I am a wimp.


What came to my rescue is another feature of the Scottish climate in January – dawn isn’t until 8.45 a.m. and it gets dark at 4 p.m. So a long day isn’t an option. We filmed as fast as possible, having to make up a new plan since the original wasn’t workable under such conditions, and stopped when we absolutely had to. If we’d had more daylight I wouldn’t be typing now.

My cast and crew are heroic. More than one person remarked that I seemed completely unbothered by the discomfort — that I seemed comfortable, in fact. I am still in agony now, but it’s much easier for the director than for anyone else, because a director is always distracted from the physical conditions. The camera crew are the next busiest, but they have to touch cold metal with bare hands. Anyone who has off-time but no shelter is going to suffer, and this team of stoic, good-humoured young folks, a mixture of pros and students, bore up amazingly well.