January 8, 2013

Rusty Knife (1958)

Three witnesses to a five year-old murder find themselves under pressure from the police force to give evidence. At the same time they're under murderous pressure from the local gang lord intent on keeping them silent. Rusty Knife is a tight Japanese crime thriller that draws much of its inspiration from American film noir and gangster flicks of the 1940s and 1950s. It's quite a contrast to the deliberately formal, static Japanese cinema of Ozu and Mizoguchi.

The film marked the directorial debut of Toshio Masuda, who would become the Nikkatsu Company's leading director of action films and thrillers. It's origins are pretty astounding, given how entertaining the final film is: in late 1957 Nikkatsu scored an unexpected hit with The Guy Who Started a Storm. Cinema owners demanded another movie featuring young star Yujiro Ishihara, and so Nikkatsu handed Toshio Masuda a screenplay and Ishihara and told him to shoot a quick and dirty crime flick in 10 days. Masuda took it upon himself to rewrite the screenplay and then shot Rusty Knife in 13 days.

The hasty production process really does show, because Rusty Knife is a hell of a scrappy film. Parts of it feel cliche-ridden and tedious. Some of the performances are wooden and stilted. More often than not, a punch to the face will visibly miss its target, despite the victim doing their best fall to the ground and shout of pain.

Yet there's much to recommend here as well. Some of the cinematography is striking in how contemporary it feels. A climactic knife fight circles around the actors in the most 21st century of ways. A no-budget truck chase sequence is wonderfully staged. The film has a great jazzy soundtrack, and its narrative follows quite a keenly felt young vs. old pattern. Despite being shot in black and white, the film exploits a Cinemascope ratio of 2.35:1, which gives everything a wonderfully "big screen" sort of feel, despite the low budget and truncated shooting schedule.

I've seen a lot of Japanese films, but they have been restricted to a couple of specific areas: post-1995 horror, Kurosawa's back catalogue, and so on. Late 1950s crime cinema is a new area for me, but based on the energy seen here I'm keen to try out some more.

(Rusty Knife is available on Region 1 DVD in one of Criterion's Eclipse film collections.)

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