Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Take Aim at the Police Van (1960)

Most accounts I’ve read of Seijun Suzuki's career suggest that after making a series of very successful crime thrillers for Nikkatsu he fell out of favour when he developed his own idiosyncratic, outrageous and somewhat surreal personal style in movies like Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967). 

Which may be so, but that personal style (in a less developed form) is already clearly present as early as 1960 in Take Aim at the Police Van.

Take Aim at the Police Van is immediately recognisable as a Seijun Suzuki film. It’s not as visually extravagant as his later movies but it is visually very imaginative and provocative. And very very stylish.

As in most Seijun Suzuki films the plot is less important than the style, but then it’s probably true of most film noir (and Suzuki is certainly widely regarded as an exponent of the Japanese brand of film noir) that plotting is less important than style and mood.

The movie’s bravura opening sequence sees a prison van being ambushed by a sharpshooter, with two prisoners being shot dead. It’s something of a puzzle for the police since it appeared to be an execution rather than an attempted prison break.

It’s a puzzle that prison guard Daijiro Tamon (Michitaro Mizushima) is determined to solve. He was in charge of the prison van and was suspended for six months as a result of the attack. Not that he was suspected of any involvement, but the safety of the prisoners was his responsibility, hence the suspension. What it means is that he now has time for his own investigation.

This investigation leads him to a series of women all of whom have some connection with the prisoners in the prison van at the time of the attack. The women include Yuko Hamashima (Misako Watanabe), who runs the Hamaju Agency. They provide female entertainers. The entertainment includes private strip shows in spa resorts. Yuko also happens to be an expert archer, a act that assumes some interest when one of the girls Tamon wants to talk to is killed by an arrow! This is definitely a Seijun Suzuki movie.

Yuko will play the femme fatale role although she’s really a more ambiguous character than the usual femme fatale. Tamon is hardly a typical noir hero however. He’s a straightforward hero, albeit an unconventional one, being middle-aged and a less than obvious choice as an action hero. The attraction between Tamon and Yuki soon becomes obvious although it’s perhaps one of the less believable elements in this movie, Tamon being a sympathetic but far from romantic hero. Mizushima and Watanabe both give fine performances though.

The plot hinges on the identity of a man known only as Akiba who heads a prostitution racket. Akiba remains in the shadows while his goons do his dirty work for him, the goons including the slightly edgy marksman and other assorted yakuza thugs.

There are plenty of action set-pieces, handled with flair and a touch of black humour. There are a couple of dream sequences that offer a glimpse of the more outrageous and delirious approach that would characterise the director’s mid-60s offerings. The movie was shot in a 2.45:1 aspect ratio that Suzuki utilises with considerable skill. Suzuki makes equally skillful use of locations, especially for the lengthy climactic sequence in the railway yards.

This is a stylish if not overly noirish crime thriller with a dash of sleaze, marked by Suzuki’s characteristic visual flair. Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.

This is part of the Nikkatsu Noir DVD boxed set released by Criterion in their Eclipse “budget” series. It’s a terrific widescreen print but lacking in extras apart from the brief but reasonably interesting liner notes. Movies like this really would benefit from a commentary track given that many viewers probably know little or nothing about Japanese cinema in general and Japanese film noir in particular.

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