This week’s post covers two of the most obscure films I’ve ever covered. But I’m of course choosing them for specific reasons. Both of them caught my eye in a specific way. This week’s films are:
Yasujiro Ozu – Dragnet Girl (1933)
Richard Thorpe – Black Hand (1950)
The first is directed by Yasujiro Ozu, one of the greatest directors of all time, best known for his film Tokyo Story, about post-war Japan. But this film is one of his early works. The other is a crime film starring Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly is of course known for musicals like Singin’ In The Rain, and is probably one of the greatest singers and dancers film has ever known. But in this film, Kelly doesn’t dance at all. This isn’t some early film before he hit it big either, this film lands 2 years before Singin’ In the Rain, and a year before An American In Paris, his two most iconic roles. It also comes a year after On The Town, another famous musical. The idea that he’d do a film so different impresses and fascinates me.
As soon as I saw both of these films on the Filmstruck listing, I knew I had to check them out. Let’s get into it.
Dragnet Girl (1933)
We follow a former boxer and current criminal boss Joji takes a young man, Hiroshi, under his wing. But when Hiroshi’s sister Kazuko objects, she appeals to Joji directly, who begins to fall for her. This becomes an immediate problem for Tokiko his current girlfriend. How will Tokiko handle the new woman who has caught Joji’s eye, and what will be the consequences if Hiroshi continues into his life of crime.
The film is directed by Yasujiro Ozu, one of the most celebrated directors of all-time, and certainly in the conversation for best Japanese director along with Akira Kurosawa. And even in this early part of his career you can see the talent emerging. The shots in this film are stunning. Way beyond what you’d expect from the silent era. We get tracking shots where the camera remains in motion throughout complex shots, deep focus shots, and wide establishing shots. Ozu does an amazing job shooting this film.
This is a silent film, and in 1933 that era was coming to a close in America. Sound was introduced a few years earlier, and I’m not certain whether Japanese filmmakers continued in silent film for technical or artistic reasons. but according to his filmography, Ozu had worked in the silent medium for quite awhile, and had already made more than a dozen films.
As for the film itself, it keeps us in the dark a bit for the first 15 minutes. We see a young woman, Tokiko, working in her office. Her boss, the company president’s son, calls her into his office, and gives her a ring, which she initially refuses, but finally accepts. As she leaves, we see her followed by two rough looking men. There’s a misdirect here, while the film signals to us that Tokiko is in danger. But when the men catch up to her, we see that not only does she know the men, but they wish to rob the president’s son, who has walked her out of the building. She turns them down, but only because she wants to keep her job.
So Tokiko is not only associated with criminals, but she appears to be comfortable committing crimes herself. It’s an interesting twist here. We follow one of the men, Joji, as he goes through his day, learning that he’s a former boxer, and now runs a small criminal gang. He’s not out of practice either, as we see in a scene shortly after where he takes on three men at once, and knocks them all out easily.
At home, we see Tokiko and Joji as a loving, playful couple. They have their idiosyncrasies, but it’s clear they really love each other. As they flirt after an evening out, Joji’s right hand man asks if he’ll see a young man from the boxing gym where Joji hangs out. It’s Hiroshi, and he’s asking to join the gang. After some initial hesitation, Joji agrees.
Hiroshi throws himself into the gang life right away, hanging around the other gang members non-stop, and starting fights in pool halls over perceived slights. We can tell this is something he’s wanted for a very long time, and he’s making the most of it. But at home, his sister realizes something is wrong right away. Seeing him stay out all night, ask for money, and he’s begun smoking. Unlike Tokiko, Kazuko has no part of this world and is afraid and uncomfortable. She is determined to pull Hiroshi out of the world.
She goes directly to Joji, to ask him to send Hiroshi away. Despite his initial dismissal, we can see that he also admires her, willing to go into an unfamiliar world and stand up to scary people to protect her brother. We can see that he begins to fall for her almost immediately. He begins spending time around her, going to the record store where she works to listen to music, showing a softer side. He even tells Hiroshi to get out of crime. This information gets back to Tokiko, who is immediately jealous.
After arguing with Joji about the woman, Tokiko goes to confront her, taking a gun. The film looks like it’s going to get really dark, with Tokiko following Kazuko home, finally catching up to her, holding the gun on her, threatening to kill her. But when Kazuko doesn’t react, Tokiko puts the gun away, telling Kazuko she likes her, even kissing her on the cheek.
When she gets back home, she brings groceries, having decided that if Joji wants a nice, domestic type of girl, she will fulfill that for him. She tells him that he doesn’t have to be a gangster if they cut back on expenses. This starts a fight, as he accuses her of sustaining their lives by accepting more gifts from the president’s son. It turns into an intense argument, with Joji demanding she pack her things and leave. She does.
While Joji ends up in a local bar, Tokiko ends up in a dance club, where she encounters the president’s son. He invites her back to his place, where he makes his pitch for her love. He offers to marry her, and she’s close to accepting, but then goes to the window. Across the way, she sees a teapot in another window. For some reason, this makes her refuse the offer, return the president’s sons gifts and go home.
At first, I was incredibly confused by this moment, but Ozu tied it all together in the next scene, when he opens on a shot of the exact same teapot in Tokiko and Joji’s home. That teapot reminded her of home. It’s an amazing bit of storytelling, that could only be done in film. And Ozu doesn’t coddle the audience, telling them exactly what he means. He just leaves a breadcrumb trail, and counts on the audience to pick up on it.
When Joji arrives home, They forgive each other and agree to go straight, and live a simpler life, free of crime.
But the story has other plans, as Hiroshi arrives, telling Joji that he never left the life of crime, and stole 200 Yen from his sister’s cash register. She is being blamed, and it is all spent. Joji and Tokiko decide to perform one last crime to help Kazuko, and then go far away where no one knows who they are.
Unfortunately, their criminal instincts aren’t stellar. For their final crime, they decide to rob Takiko’s boss, during the day, at the office, where everyone knows her, and they likely have her address on file. They also don’t wear masks or try to hide their identity at all. They simply walk into the office, pull a gun on the presidents son, and demand 200 Yen in cash. This blows a big hole in the idea that these two could have been successful criminals in any capacity.
After the crime, Joji delivers the money to Kazuko, while Tokiko returns home to pack. Which is an insane thing to do. Remember, she robbed the place where she works, which definitely has her name, and almost certainly has her home address on file. The biggest plot hole in this film is that the police weren’t already there waiting for her.
When Joji arrives, he discovers that Tokiko hasn’t packed anything. She suggests that they simply let the police catch them, that they’ll only be in jail for a few years, and then they can have a fresh start. Joji refuses and drags her out the window to escape the police, who have already reached their front door.
After a chase, with Tokiko pleading with Joji to stop running, they begin an argument. Throughout the film, Joji has playfully placed his fist under Tokiko’s chin. It’s an affectionate motion that plays on his time as a boxer. But during this argument, Joji fully hits her. As he walks away, she pulls the gun and shoots him in the leg, alerting the police, and shocking them both out of their fight. After some more discussion, Joji finally agrees that they will stop running. The police finally catch them.
When I selected this film, I assumed it was a crime film, but it actually feels more like a romantic drama, even a soap opera. So which is it? I think it leans heavily in the soap opera direction, with the setting of a crime film. The plot centers on the love triangle between Kazuko, Tokiko and Joji, and the crime is mostly a subplot, explaining some of the characters reaction. I assume this was a common genre in Japan at the time, but it feels very strange watching it now. It doesn’t follow the beats of a standard crime film at all. Hiroshi is the standard crime film character, but this film makes him simply a side character, a character that moves the action around.
And certainly, no self-respecting crime film would portray their criminals the way this film does, as completely inept. The only possible explanation I can come up with is that Tokiko fully intended for both of them to get caught, and Joji was simply too dumb to recognize that initially. This explains Tokiko’s behavior, but makes Joji’s resolution very unsatisfying. At the end, I’m not sure what to think of this film. The cinematography was stunning, but the story left me cold.
Black Hand (1950)
As a boy, Johnny Columbo is an Italian immigrant whose father runs afowl of the Black Hand, a gang of criminals who terrorize and control his neighborhood. His mother takes him back to Italy, but when he’s old enough, he returns to New York to avenge his father’s death and free his community from the Black Hand. But how will he do it? And who can he trust?
The film stars Gene Kelly and is directed by Richard Thorpe. Thorpe had an extensive directing career, but never reached the heights of the greats. And of course, Gene Kelly is probably the greatest musical star that ever was. But this isn’t a musical. And there are no hints or winks that he is the major musical star that he is in this film. It’s played completely straight. So how does he do?
The film starts off in 1900, where we see a lawyer meeting with the police to report a member of the Black Hand who came to threaten him. Unfortunately for him, the police officer is actually a member of the Black Hand posing as a police officer, who has also been murdered. There’s a good scene here where the man describes the two men who came to see him in detail, and then shortly after, the two men come out of the back room, revealing the set up. The man is killed, and left in the room with the dead cop. The man is Roberto Columbo, and his teenage son Johnny is whisked away by his mother after the tragedy. The film immediately cuts to 8 years later, with Johnny on a boat back to America. His mother has died, and he wants vengeance.
He begins searching the old neighborhood, under an assumed name. He runs into Isabella, an old school friend, and immediately blows his cover, deciding to trust her right away. We get a sense of how ruthless the Black Hand is when she tells him of the night they bombed her apartment building, killing everyone inside, including her entire family short of her and her young brother Rudy, who were out at the time. When he tells her of his plan for vengeance, she suggests community organizing instead. He dismisses it, because his plan involves violence. He even flashes a switchblade to show he’s serious.
But his big plan doesn’t last long. After he finds the man he’s sure has the information he needs, two of his old friends from the neighborhood walk into the bar, and call out his real name, ruining his cover and plans. To make things worse, his contact is killed in his bed that night.
So 20 minutes into the movie, all of Johnny’s carefully laid plans are blown apart. An old friend, the cop who came to see him after his father died, Louis Lorelli is there, and tells him to forget about the Black Hand, no one from the group has ever been prosecuted. So what does Johnny do? He decides to try out community organizing.
This is a major shift for the film. The premise of the film, from the first 20 minutes, is that Johnny has been wronged, and he is there to avenge murder, not with the law, but with a switchblade, which he’s already shown in the film. When it suddenly shifts to a peaceful community-based solution, it makes the film seem like it has no idea what story it wants to tell. Of course, community organizing is a valid way to solve this problem, and in fact, probably more effective than violence. However, it’s a radical shift in tone that the film doesn’t really earn. From there, it becomes harder and harder to understand the character motivations, or even who the main character is. Sometimes, it feels like it is Johnny Columbo. Other times, it feels like it is Louis Lorelli. This unevenness doesn’t do the film any favors.
Johnny and Isabella are fairly successful at organizing a meeting, but as it begins, Johnny is tossed through the door, beaten badly and with broken legs. This of course, scares everyone else off and it seems like the organizing is dead. And soon after, the Black Hand leaves a bomb on a shops doorstep, destroying it. But the police catch a break, finding part of a note that was used in the bomb, and it’s legible enough to get a handwriting sample. Lorelli hires Johnny, who has decided to become a lawyer to track down the handwriting. He manages to match the handwriting, and arrest a man, who we know is one of the men who killed Johnny’s father. Even better, the man who owned the shop is willing to testify against the man.
At the trial, the shop owner Sabballera is boisterous and open, giving all the information. But when asked to identify the man who asked for the money, Sabballera sees a man in the crowd pull his finger across his throat, threatening him. He clams up. Lorelli, who is in the crowd, tries to save it, even explaining some Italian experience to the judge and to the audience. He eloquently describes the plight of the Italian in America. It’s one of the stronger moments of the film, even though it comes across as if Lorelli is looking directly into camera, doing a public service announcement.
Sabballera tries again, but this time sees a man threatening his wife, and will not identify the man. It appears the case is lost, but then a last minute piece of evidence comes in. Lorelli has sent away to Italy for any criminal records for the man currently in custody. It’s never worked before, but finally, one came through. Lorelli is able to prove that the man in custody is there under an assumed name and is wanted in Italy for crimes. This immediately disqualifies his immigration status and he is deported. Johnny and Lorelli count this as a victory, and Johnny wonders aloud why Lorelli doesn’t go to Italy and match criminal records there to people he knows in America. Lorelli claims the department won’t allow him to do it, but notes that he does have a lot of leave coming up.
It’s decided that Lorelli will travel to Italy under the guise of a vacation, but while there will go about searching local police records for any criminals, sending them back home so members of the Black Hand will be arrested and deported. He tells Johnny to keep everything a secret, including what he is doing, and where he is sending the records, keeping the PO box a complete secret. But Johnny tells Isabella, and Isabella tells someone she’s sure she can trust, but of course, we’ve already seen that he’s secretly a member of the Black Hand.
Lorelli is followed as soon as he gets to Italy, and is even attacked on the street, although the criminals didn’t get anything of value. He is offered the protection of a single police officer, and when he does try to mail the records, he has to walk what seems like half a mile, and is attacked by two gun toting men, who manage to kill his guard and Lorelli, but not before Lorelli gets the package in the mail.
Back at home, the Black Hand know this package is coming, and it could end them. They also know that Johnny knows where it’s ending up. They kidnap Isabella’s young brother, Rudy, and demand that Johnny give them the PO box and the key before they’ll release him. Johnny returns to the initial premise of the film, deciding to take action, and finds where Rudy is located, but is immediately captured. He is forced to give up the information.
The film climaxes with the criminals poring over the documents with Johnny in a backroom. He discovers a stack of pre-made bombs in the signature cigar boxes that the Black Hand uses. He lights one and manages to duck down, injuring and killing most of the men, but managing to survive. But so did the head of the gang, who grabs the package and runs. We get a chase scene, where Johnny reveals he is an expert knife thrower, which is a skill he has never demonstrated before now. He stabs the man in the back, and gets the records, handing them over to the police.
Like the previous film, for a crime film, this seems quite atypical. It sets itself up as a serious crime film, along the lines of the Warner Brothers gangster films, some of which we’ve covered. But then it abandons that immediately, choosing to focus on the idea that the gang can be stopped with good police work and community organizing. Then in the last 10 minutes, it tries to recapture the crime film ethos with a big showdown at the end. But the problem is that it has done such a good job of keeping the Black Hand mysterious and dangerous that it doesn’t introduce us to any of them, and we’re completely in the dark. We know that the Black Hand is dangerous, but we don’t have any connection to them as characters or villains. It just isn’t very satisfying.
But the problems with the film aren’t with Gene Kelly. He doesn’t lift the material to new heights, but he doesn’t drag it down either. The problems here lie with the storytelling in general. That’s either the fault of the director or the writer. I’m not sure who it is, but the problems are pretty clear.
The Double Feature
Two films that weren’t what I expected today. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes an unexpected film can be a great thing. But what’s unexpected about these films is that they aren’t very satisfying stories. That doesn’t speak well to any film, unfortunately. I picked both of these films because I knew nothing about them and wanted to take a risk. But this time, the risk didn’t work out. There are things to like about the films, but as a whole, they just didn’t come together.
I’m in that place where I just had a major accomplishment and I know what I have to do next, but I’m having trouble motivating myself. I’ll get there, but right now I just feel like relaxing.
But regardless, how about next week’s films? After two disappointing films this week, I think I’m going to watch two films that I just love to death, but aren’t really universally known or loved. Next weeks films are:
Jonathan Lyn – Clue (1985)
John Patrick Shanley – Joe Vs The Volcano (1990)
Should be a fun week. See you then.