Tag Archives: Seven Samurai

Sum Up | F⁴: Five Favorite Fifties Films

  • E: What am I watching? It just started, and I don’t know what’s happening.
  • B: It’s symbolic.
  • E: Yeah? Who’s that guy?
  • B: That’s Death walking on the beach.
  • E: I’ve been to Atlantic City a hundred times, and I’ve never seen Death walk on the beach.

From Diner (1982); written by Barry Levinson; set in 1959.


Growing up, I always had a negative impression of the 1950s (as far as film was concerned–it wasn’t until later I got a negative impression of reality in the 1950s). Anyway, that negative impression of fifties films has changed over the years, starting when I realized Hitchcock was making movies in the fifties, then Kubrick, then Kurosawa. Then I started seeing Hollywood movies from the fifties in my late teens, when I discovered Eleanor Parker, and I revised my opinion. The fifties have a lot of good stuff, even Hollywood.

So the early sixties must be the weak era.

I still catch myself being vaguely down on the fifties. Even as some directors rose to prominence, lots of the elder statesmen started churning it out, which is true of any era. Now, when a film from the 1950s provokes a derisive thought, I mentally walk it back and remind myself… the fifties aren’t just all right, they’re rather great.

And not just because it’s when Bergman got going strong.

Preparing this post I went through the Stop Button responses of the best fifties movies. I came up with thirty-five (though the number is since thirty-six, I hadn’t written about Stalag 17 when I made that list); then I thought maybe I could write about my childhood fifties favorites. Because even though I had a negative impression of fifties cinema, many of my favorite monster movies were from that decade. So the list could’ve included Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mole People, the Raymond Burr version of Godzilla, and so on.

But then I decided to try to do the list straight. With the only asterisk being East of Eden. I haven’t seen it recently enough to include it with the others, but it might be on here instead of something else, it might not be.

Descending by year, the final list of five favorite fifties films.

  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • Paths of Glory (1957)
  • The Searchers (1956)
  • Seven Samurai (1954)
  • Detective Story (1951)

Call it a “desert island but with electricity to watch movies” list or a fifties beginner list, these five films hit most of the quadrants of the fifties cinema. Hollywood melodramas aren’t represented in whole, but definitely in part—all five films contain similar elements, while some of them also feature similarities to fifties Bergman. Not so much in content, subject, or tone, but feel. There’s a decided lack of humor; Mose Harper and his rocking chair are about it. Still, These five films “feel” like a fifties film should feel. At least to be an exemplar.

Touch of Evil French poster

Touch of Evil. When I saw Touch of Evil in the theater (for the 1998 re-edit), I had already seen the film before. I might have even owned it on LaserDisc at that point. I didn’t exactly grow up with Touch of Evil, but I did spend my teens revering it. Even cutting it to shreds, the studio couldn’t excise the film of its greatness. I might have first seen it in 1992 or so, after The Player. I remember learning about complicated opening tracking shots around that time.

I’d definitely seen it by the time Get Shorty came out in 1995 because I’ve been laughing at that “Charlton Heston play Mexican” line since the first time I saw Shorty.

The only time I’ve watched the film since starting The Stop Button, I watched the original theatrical version, which came out in a DVD set with the 1998 cut and also the “preview cut.” I meant to watch all three of them, but still haven’t gotten around to it.

I watched it in one of my undergrad film classes—actually, there are two more coming up I watched in those classes—which would’ve been after the 1998 re-cut but before that version was on video. So it must have been the theatrical version. I really got to understand how the performances worked, how the script worked. I also got to see it with a better understanding of Welles.

Paths of Glory poster by Tona Stella

Paths of Glory. I might have discovered Paths of Glory from my dad’s Criterion LaserDisc. One summer in high school, I went through most of his LaserDisc collection—the ones I knew nothing about—while staying up until four in the morning and then sleeping until noon. Or my dad might have just watched it with me when he got it.

I can’t remember.

I definitely was a big fan by the time I went to college, where I’d see it in one of those film classes, but also think about the film in the context of my World War I history classes. Paths of Glory is still, probably, my favorite Kubrick film. I like to say Barry Lyndon to be difficult, but for “bang for the (runtime) buck,” it’s definitely Paths of Glory. And, if Kirk Douglas is to be believed, he’s the reason Kubrick didn’t sell out with Glory. How different American cinema would’ve been had it not been for Douglas wanting to have an unhappy ending.

Glory was one of those films I watched to learn how to pick a film apart, how to understand structure. I had to write an essay on it, after all. I needed to understand how Kubrick used George Macready’s villain, for example, so I had to delineate his scenes. Or wanted to delineate his scenes in the essay and did.

The Searchers Japanese poster

The Searchers. If you grew up in the eighties and nineties and liked film and liked John Wayne, you did not like good films. I’m sure there are some childhood John Wayne fans who would argue, but if you were ever okay watching McQ and The Green Berets, you did not like good films.

I don’t think I started watching John Wayne movies until The Searchers in that college film class. I’d seen The Shootist but probably almost nothing else. After seeing The Searchers, I stuck to the John Ford ones, of course. When I did branch out—to McQ, to The Green Berets—they only confirmed my suspicions about his ability to give godawful performances.

Wayne didn’t really have a redeemable offscreen personality either. So I’ve always been really careful in considering his films, which just makes Searchers all the stronger. Ford knew how to use Wayne to best effect, particularly in this film. Wayne’s playing on type, struggling against the inevitable character development.

Searchers was another film where I learned a lot about how to consider present action. It’s the undergrad film essay the instructor made me stand up and read aloud. I remember he started reading it and I thought, that’s not mine. Only for him to call me up.

Forced public speaking versus ego boost. How grand.

The Searchers also made me think a lot about expectation. What the audience “deserves” to know, what they don’t, and ultimately why deserve hasn’t got anything to do with it.

Seven Samurai British poster

Seven Samurai. It took me forever to see Seven Samurai. I checked it out from the college library my first year, didn’t watch it. I already had a copy of it on tape; I had dozens of EP tapes of movies to watch when I went to college. The quality was so bad I gave up on them almost immediately. But Samurai had come up in film class and the library had it, so I got it.

But didn’t end up seeing it for at least two more years, even as I would’ve probably watched more Kurosawa.

The first Kurosawa I saw was Dreams. Because Scorsese. Because color. I rented it once, didn’t end up watching it, rented it again, watched it. Have zero memory of it, soon enough saw Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Ran. I was a big Ran fan. But Samurai was always too daunting. Too long. Too big.

When I finally did see it, I thought it was great, but then sort of forgot about it. When I went back and watched it last year, I was blown away even more than I remember being the first time I watched it. Definitely one of those films where the more thoughtful you can be, the better your experience becomes. You’ve got to keep its 207 minutes constantly “in mind,” which isn’t necessarily easy but also is an imperative consumption skill.

Detective Story print ad

Detective Story. I gave this one a lot of thought before putting it on the list. It’s earlier than any of the other films, it’s got far more in common with post-war Hollywood than mid-fifties Hollywood. It’s the only Eleanor Parker movie on the list (and only probably her best performance from the decade, not definitely). It’s nowhere near as epic as any of the others (Touch of Evil and Paths of Glory being epically produced). It’s quite the opposite. It’s got a single location and is the most exquisite filmed adaptation of a play… ever. There’s just something about the way director William Wyler does it.

I cannot remember how I first saw it, unfortunately. I think I traded for it because it didn’t air on Turner Classic Movies and had never had a home video released (I was real excited when it came out on DVD, back when Paramount seemed to just realize it had a deep back catalog). Then the DVD went out of print and it all of a sudden became rarer. But now it’s streaming and being able to watch Detective Story on demand is—compared to when I first wanted to see the film in the late nineties—incredible. When classic film accessibility works out, it works out.

And Detective Story is rather accessible. It can’t be as frank as it could be, but Wyler and the cast don’t need to be too frank. Euphemism works on stage and Wyler understands how to make Story play as though it’s… produced on stage. Sort of.

It’s an exceptional play adaptation, even without being great otherwise.

And all five films are great. Phenomenal. Exceptional. Singular. Exquisite. All the good adjectives. Lots of complexity, lots of layers, lots of lots.

They’re enough to make you forget you ever dismissed the fifties as racist Westerns, soapy Hollywood melodramas, and obnoxious musicals. The fifties has all those kinds of films, unfortunately, but they also have some of the finest films ever made. Like the ones enumerated above. Like the thirty-one others I didn’t mention. Like the two dozen I can’t remember seeing. Like the countless others I haven’t seen. Yet.

If only phenomenal started with an F.


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 5 FAVORITE FILMS OF THE 50'S HOSTED BY RICK OF CLASSIC FILM & TV CAFÉ.


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Sum Up | 2018 in Review

I didn’t have any big plans for The Stop Button in 2018 other than blogathons and whatever came up. Comics Fondle I was reading all of Love and Rockets, which took more than 2018. But Stop Button… well, marathon training. It was going to take up a lot of time.

Of the 157 feature films… the three best films I watched were Seven Samurai, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Best Years of Our Lives. I’d seen all those films before (though it’d been a long time on each of them); the best films I saw for the first time were Get Out, Frances Ha, Sunset Blvd., Only Angels Have Wings, and Jour de fête. No order on any of these lists.

BestWorst
Seven SamuraiGuardians of the Galaxy 2
2001: A Space OdysseyGreat Monster Varan
The Best Years of Our LivesThe Incredible Hulk Returns

However, when it comes to the worst films I watched this year? I’ll give it to Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which I truly loathed, Great Monster Varan, which broke the cardinal rule of kaiju–it was boring–and The Incredible Hulk Returns, which I remembered from childhood and felt great shame. Not for the “Incredible Hulk” TV show, but for that first TV movie. I haven’t been able bring myself to watch the other two yet.

Speaking of superheroes… most of the recent movies I watched were comic book movies. Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Thor 3, Ant-Man 2, Avengers 4, Venom, Aquaman, (ugh) Guardians 2, also Darkman, which I’d watched since starting the blog for the Alan Smithee Podcast but never written about. And the long-anticipated Superman: The Movie: The Extended Version, which is a mess but rather informative about how narrative editing works for a film. Also the second “Hulk” TV pilot movie. Oh, and two Superman serials, one Dick Tracy one, one Batman one.

Best comic book movies I watched were Black Panther and Avengers 4.

Sequels I watched a bunch. Five total Puppetmaster movies (one and the four sequels). Westworld and Futureworld. Star Wars: Episode 8. Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (the first Leone Western I’ve written about). Mission: Impossible 6 and 5. Magic Mike 2 (haven’t seen the first). Die Hard 3 (after meaning to watch it again for, you know, a decade). Creed II (it might be the only Stallone movie on the blog this year, which is something). And then some Halloween movies. I watched the Joe Chappelle travesty again, then the crappy Rob Zombie ones in their theatrical cuts for the Sum Up post I really didn’t want to do. After seeing H40, I decided to scrap that post. Not worth editing, even though I had it fully drafted. That one killed Sum Up enthusiasm even more than Godzilla Showa.

Then there were the sequel serials. The aforementioned Batman and Superman ones. Also Flash Gordon 2. I also watched Judex, which is actually good (the first actually good serial I’d seen in ages), The Clutching Hand, which was godawful and stopped me watching serials, The Phantom Creeps, which was godawful but no Clutching Hand, and Dick Tracy, which was godawful but no Phantom Creeps. When I tried to keep the interest with Flash Gordon 2 and it disappointed… well. I can’t do the serials for a while. I think I might have watched the first chapter of The Shadow and not even posted it because the serial was such a noodle.

As usual, there was more horror than one would think. The Puppetmaster series, House, DeepStar Six, Shadow of the Vampire, Stepford Wives, Babadook, Quiet Place, Let Me In, Sleepwalkers, The Descent, The Witch. Some major disappointments; I expected too much from House and Six though. Those two are on me. The biggest surprise was probably that one good Puppetmaster movie.

Foreign movies I didn’t watch anywhere near as many as I always mean to watch. Worse, the two Bergman’s disappointed (to various degrees)–Autumn Sonata and Through a Glass Darkly. Aforementioned Jour de Fete was excellent. And Delicatessen held up. I’d been meaning to watch it again.

My highly anticipated first viewings not including the aforementioned “best of”) were Giant, Blade Runner 2, The Gay Falcon, The Other Side of the Wind, Lonelyhearts, The Cheap Detective, Sometimes a Great Notion, Quiet Place, The Witch, and–to some degree–All That Heaven Allows. Most disappointing is of course Other Side of the Wind, but worst is Gay Falcon.

Highly anticipated repeat viewings (also not including the aforementioned “best of”). Goodfellas, Delicatessen, Street Smart, Naked Alibi, Vivacious Lady, You Can’t Take It With You, Die Hard 3. Goodfellas was kind of a shock but also inevitable (whereas Naked Alibi and Street Smart were just inevitable). Vivacious Lady was a pleasant surprise.

Now, of those forty-four short films, the big focus was the “Peanuts” television specials. I managed to keep going on those ones even after it became clear it was going to be rough at times. I made the only video I made this year because of one. It’s Snoopy but Wicker Man, get it?

I also watched all of Cheryl Dunye’s early short films, which was awesome. Around twenty years after first reading about Dear Diary I finally saw it and, wow, no. The Edison Frankenstein is great though. I also finally finished up the forties Superman cartoons; most of them are bad. I’d been meaning to watch those cartoons since I started writing about shorts; they really weren’t worth the wait.

Best shorts are Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, Greetings from Africa, Meshes of the Afternoon, What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? Almost in order of publication, which I should’ve been doing from the start for the best of lists. Next year.

I think the decade with most films written about is the fifties, which seems weird because I didn’t think at all about focusing on it. Just happened.

A month into 2019, it certainly seems like I’m going to keep going with blogathons to “schedule” Stop Button. I’ve got a bunch of short films I’m interested in but the only thing really connecting them is that interest. No scheduling themes for the foreseeable future, other than long form posts. Next month I’m doing an Eleanor Parker post about the Oscars. Then I think I’m alternating monthly between Stop Button and Comics Fondle.

The 2019 blogathon schedule has some movies I’m really looking forward to writing about finally: Primrose Path and Incredible Shrinking Man being the standouts so far. I remember loving both those films. Long ago.

And scheduling a weekly group movie night has lead to some long dreaded repeats (Unbreakable) but also excellent ones (Sugarland). Films I’ve already got scheduled I’m really looking forward to watching (or watching again)–Sorry To Bother You, Mighty Quinn, Crooklyn, To Die For, Lizzie, Duel.

Good fodder.

Given I’m not training for a marathon again, I hope this summer I do something more focused–there’s a lot more Bergman in the box set, there’s Aki Kaurismäki, there’s still Buster Keaton (if just the shorts), there’s those restored Hal Hartleys, there’s plenty. There’s too much.

So I’m keeping my 2019 Stop Button ambitions just as low as 2018’s, only without the marathon excuse. But am confident I’ll see some good things. Maybe even Sixth Sense again, because I have to know.

Seven Samurai (1954, Kurosawa Akira)

Seven Samurai is about a farming village, under imminent threat of bandits raiding and stealing their crop–and possibly doing much worse–who decides to hire samurai to defend them. They send four men–Fujiwara Kamatari, Kosugi Yoshio, Tsuchiya Yoshio, and Hidari Bokuzen–to town to hire the samurai. They can’t pay them, but they can feed them. The villagers will subsist on millet, the samurai will get rice. Not a great deal and the men don’t have much luck to start.

However, they soon find Shimura Takashi, an older ronin, who’s able to convince others to take up the cause. There’s young Kimura Isao, who looks up to Shimura and the other samurai, but hasn’t got any real experience yet. Katō Daisuke plays an old war buddy of Shimura’s who happily joins up. Inaba Yoshio is the second-in-command, Chiaki Minoru’s the funny one, Miyaguchi Seiji’s the serious one. Then there’s Mifuno Toshiro as the wild one.

After an hour or so–the film runs just under three and a half–the Seven Samurai head to the village. The first hour has the village setup, then the four farmers quest in the city, then Shimura recruiting the other samurai. There’s an intermission halfway, but the period after the samurai get to the village and before the bandits return, which takes up some of the time after the intermission too, is it’s own phase in the film. Then there’s the battle. A little while before the battle, the villagers–who aren’t just providing room and board for the samurai, but are also being trained to fight alongside them against the bandits–wonder if the bandits have forgotten about them.

And it certainly does seem possible. Seven Samurai’s first few minutes promise this bloody showdown between the villagers and the bandits, which then becomes the samurai and the bandits, but then it’s really just a lot of character study. Sure, they’re all training for the impending battle, but it’s character study. Kurosawa and co-writers Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo subtlely explore the villagers and the samurai, with Mifune and Kimura getting the most emphasis on the latter, Tsuchiya and Fujiwara getting the most emphasis on the former. Turns out even though the village decided to hire samurai, they didn’t really think about what it meant for samurai to be living among them. Their only previous experience with samurai being samurai attacking and pillaging villages.

Mifune’s character development throughout the second portion–he shows up in the beginning, then disappears until the night before they leave for the village (the first hour takes place over about a week)–plays off the other samurai. Even though Shimura and company think they’ve got Mifune figured out, they really don’t. And he’s able to transcend the class divisions built into their interactions with the villagers.

Meanwhile Kimura begins romancing Fujiwara’s daughter, Tsushima Keiko, and it becomes clear he doesn’t really understand what it means to be a samurai either. Not from the perspective of a villager, who’s always a potential victim in one way or another.

There’s a whole lot to Seven Samurai. Kurosawa and his co-writers don’t introduce a lot more in the last hour… wait, never mind. Yes, yes they do. Amid the multi-day battle sequence, they do introduce a lot more. Mifune has a whole other subplot, as Kurosawa reveals he’s actually juxtaposed against Kimura, which never seemed to be a thing but was a thing the whole time. Going back to their first scene together (with Shimura). Only they were subplot to the villagers pursuing Shimura at that point.

But I was really trying to get to the violence thing. In the first hour, whenever Kurosawa shows violence, it doesn’t have any sound. There are the sounds behind it, but the violence itself–the steel of the swords cutting into flesh–has none. It’s uncanny and directs the viewer’s attention. When it comes time, in the third part, for the battle… Kurosawa handles violence differently. His original approach to it, what he emphasizes, is baked into what he does later, but it’s evolved. Kurosawa’s constantly perturbing Seven Samurai’s style. Like his editing. At the beginning, there are some sharp cuts to bring the viewer back in time to sixteenth century. He doesn’t keep them going once he’s got the time period established; he just takes time and gives attention to getting it established.

Especially since he later calls back to those cuts in a seemingly unrelated sequence, which then informs a bunch of other things as far as character development and revelation.

There’s not a wasted frame in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s precise. The film never drags, never dawdles. The three and a half hours sail by. Even the subplot introductions–after the film shifts over to Shimura and the samurai–are seamless. The pacing is just another of its master-strokes.

Technically, Samurai’s singular. Kurosawa’s direction–which changes stylistically as the plot progresses–is otherworldly. The way he and cinematographer Nakai Asakazu are able to frame the action horizontally make Samurai feel like an Academy ratio Panavision picture for the first two hours. Nakai’s photography is fantastic. Ditto Hayasaka Fumio’s music and Matsuyama Takashi’s production design. It’s all breathtakingly faultless.

Then there are the performances. Shimura and Mifune get the flashiest roles. Mifune in a loud way, Shimura in a quiet. They’re fantastic. Kimura’s good; he’s sort of the viewer’s point of entry for the samurai, but also the villagers. Though Mifune turns out to have similar avenues of insight. Both Miyaguchi and Katō have some excellent moments. But the villagers. Tsuchiya and Fujiwara are awesome; they get the big arcs running throughout, just under the surface; constant. They’re heartbreaking in different ways.

Hidari eventually becomes a sidekick to Mifune, which gives some of the very necessary comic relief once things get intense. And Tsushima’s good as Kimura’s love interest. She, Shimura, Tsuchiya, and Miyaguchi have the most pensive parts. They have these amazing internal experiences only relayed through expression; Kurosawa’s editing, not to mention his composition, showcases their silent thoughtfulness.

Seven Samurai is a masterpiece. It’s nigh impossible to imagine a way it could be even minutely improved.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Kurosawa Akira; written by Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo; director of photography, Nakai Asakazu; music by Hayasaka Fumio; production designer, Matsuyama Takashi; produced by Motoki Sôjirô; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Shimura Takashi (Shimada), Kimura Isao (Katsushirō), Mifune Toshirō (Kikuchiyo), Tsuchiya Yoshio (Rikichi), Tsushima Keiko (Shino), Inaba Yoshio (Gorōbei), Miyaguchi Seiji (Kyūzō), Katō Daisuke (Shichirōji), Fujiwara Kamatari (Manzō), Chiaki Minoru (Heihachi), Hidari Bokuzen (Yohei), Kosugi Yoshio (Mosuke), and Kōdō Kokuten (Gisaku).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE "NON-ENGLISH" BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THOUGHTS ALL SORTS.


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