|Policeman (1933) – Silent
Run time: Approved | 121 min | Crime, Drama
Director: Tomu Uchida
Writers: Toshihiko Takeda, Eizo Yamauchi
Stars: Eiji Nakano, Isamu Kosugi, Taisuke Matsumoto
You don’t see a fatalistic, silent, film-noir, Japanese cop-drama on the big screen with live musical accompaniment every day! The late date for a silent is accounted for by the fact that Japanese cinema did not convert totally to sound until the 1930s.
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There is a certain pace to Japanese cinema that doesn’t seem to have changed much over the last 70 years. From Ozu’s reflections on social interaction to Takeshi Kitano’s ultra violent Yazuza movies, there is a deliberate development of plot that is designed to show the thoughtfulness of the characters and their quiet reflection on the world around them. This informs the plot of this movie also. At an hour and three quarters the film could easily be shaved of twenty minutes of its running time in order to compete with its contemporaries. As a film noir, the casting, plot and cinematography are nearly flawless. The film begins with a policeman stopping and searching a car on the way into the city during a large search for an escaped gangster. He recognises an old school friend and they arrange to meet up. From this innocuous beginning, the investigation leads to wounding, murder and betrayal as the cop wrestles with his conscience and duty to his profession. Treading some of the same ground as Carol Reed’s masterpiece The Third Man, this is an intriguing example of late Asian silent film-making (a part of the world that adopted sound much later) and is worth watching for the great photography and evocative locations – a world where neon lights and automobiles contrast with the fragile homes and traditional dress of older Japanese culture. Perhaps with a carefully chosen Jazz accompaniment the film would unfold better, but when seen with an unimaginative soundtrack, the pace is soporific rather than engaging. However as an historical document for anyone interested in the development of Japanese cinema, it is unmissible.
This is a late silent film by Ichida, whose recent retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario seemed to herald another lost master, although I have testimony to the contrary. This is the only one I saw, his sole surviving silent. It tells of the repeatedly crossing paths of two old pals – one the titular policeman, the other a mastermind of Japan's communist underworld. There's beautiful compositions and memorable scenes and images, mixed in among the failed stuff – one brief, solitary scene suddenly gets all Underground with cityscape nervously juxtaposed with chain link fence, then it's back to the linear stuff like nothing happened. What I will remember, though, is the way the action-packed climax is interlaced with title cards to the effect of, "The only way to be a good cop is to understand that you were given your mission by GOD!" Someone should have given a co-writer credit to the Minister of Information.