Saturday, April 21, 2012

Rusty Knife (1958)

Rusty Knife is a Japanese film noir/crime thriller and is one of five movies presented in the Nikkatsu Noir boxed set by Criterion in their “budget” Eclipse series.

Chronologically this is the second movie in the set. All five movies represent a Japanese approach to film noir that combines plenty of classic noir elements with a uniquely Japanese flavour. This, and the fact that all were made by Nikkatsu Studios in the late 50s and early 60s, is what gives this collection of movies by a variety of directors its coherence.

Rusty Knife dates from 1958 and was directed by a man who went to become one of the studio’s most successful directors, Toshio Masuda.

A small Japanese industrial city is at the mercy of the gangster Katsumada. The police know all about his activities but no-one can be persuaded to testify against him. Then the police get a break. Five years earlier a city councillor, Nishida, committed suicide. Or so it appeared. In fact he was murdered. There were three witnesses, all criminals. They were all paid off.

Now one of the criminals, Shimabara (Jô Shishido, later to become Japanese noir’s most iconic star), has decided the huge money was not sufficient. He tries to blackmail Katsumada. He pays the price for his folly, but he was not a complete fool. He had given a letter to his girlfriend, to be delivered to the police in the event of his untimely demise. Not only does the letter reveal that Nishida’s death was murder, it also names the two other witnesses.

These two witnesses, Terada and Tachibana (Yûjirô Ishihara), now work in Tachibara’s bar. These two former yakuza have now gone straight. Five years earlier another event occurred. Tachibara’s girlfriend was raped and subsequently killed herself. Tachibara killed the rapist and served five years in prison. He is a hot-tempered but fundamentally decent man. He wants no more violence in his life, he wants no more to do with crime. Nut neither the police nor Katsumada are likely to leave him in peace.

He is a typical noir hero, an essentially good man who cannot escape his past or his one tragic violent act. Also swept into this drama is Nichida’s daughter Keiko (Mie Kitahara), now a documentary film-maker crusading against violent crime. She and Tachibana are friends but now they will be drawn together in an unexpected way, and the various plot strands will coalesce.

Tachibana is a reluctant hero but there is one piece of evidence that will cause him to question the fatal events that occurred five years earlier and persuade him to take a stand.

There’s plenty of noirish atmosphere and like most Japanese movies it’s quite stylish but without the visual extravagance of a Seijun Suzuki movie. The truck fight sequence is impressive. Yûjirô Ishihara and Mie Kitahara are both excellent.

Budget-priced has of course a different meaning to Criterion than to us regular folks, this Nikkatsu Noir boxed set being merely overpriced rather than colossally overpriced. Picture quality is very good though. And the movies are so good that the set is an absolute must-buy.

Rusty Knife is very definitely worth a look. Highly recommended.

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