Rashomon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa | 1hr 28min

Akira Kurosawa has never shied away from the cutthroat cynicism of Japanese history and mythology, but as dark rain beats down heavily upon the dilapidated city gate that we return to all throughout Rashomon, one might feel as if he is sinking us deeper than ever into an apocalyptic world of total ruin. Even with half its roof caved in and an array of broken wooden beams exposed to the elements, it remains an impressive piece of ancient architecture, obstructing frames inside its walls with the debris that has accumulated over the years.

The sombre mood of the woodcutter and priest sitting silently under its feeble shelter equally suggests a decay that has taken over the land, though as they begin to explain the reason for their dismay to a passing commoner, it becomes evident that the form of degradation they are concerned with is more that of a senseless, moral corruption. Both have just observed the trial of a bandit who assaulted a woman on the road and seemingly killed her samurai husband, though what initially seems like a clear-cut case of truth and justice soon gets muddled as three conflicting stories emerge.

An impressive piece of dilapidated Japanese architecture drenched in rain, setting the scene for the narrative’s almost apocalyptic framing device.

By containing these flashbacks within the larger flashback of the trial, Kurosawa keeps us at a significant distance from each version of these events, recalling them not necessarily how they unfolded, but rather how the individual witnesses would like to believe they happened, presenting them to an unseen, silent judge. Each seated centre frame, the bandit, wife, and a medium channelling the spirit of the deceased samurai present their case directly to the camera, cutting any representation of lawful judgement out of the equation to position us, the viewers, as the sole arbiters of truth. This is not such an easy task though, we soon discover. While each witness agrees that the bandit confronted the travelling couple, tied up the samurai, and raped his wife, the renditions of subsequent events see each respective storyteller curiously frame themselves as the true murderer.

The witnesses in the centre foreground, the priest and woodcutter off to the right in the background as spectators to their recounts.

Despite this, each recount still sees its own narrator come out looking the most honourable among them, or in the case of the bandit, the bravest and smartest. Only in unlocking the fourth perspective of the woodcutter who secretly bore witness to the whole thing do we discover what we might assume is the truth, bookending the trial flashbacks with two of his own. We initially have no reason to doubt the first, which explains how he discovered a trail of strewn possessions leading to the samurai’s body while venturing down the road, though by the time we reach his final confession of how the confrontation really went down, we have been thoroughly conditioned to question the words of anyone with some connection to it.

Sure enough, the woodcutter admits he lied in court to cover up the fact that he stole the jewelled dagger from the scene of the crime. In his final version of events, the samurai humiliated his wife after she was raped by the bandit, and it is only after she challenged their masculinity that they were provoked into a pathetic, clumsy fight, proving that neither were particularly skilled with their weapons. The bandit’s win was not secured by skill or bravery, but sheer luck, and frightened by what just took place, the wife ran away in fear.

A master of blocking at work in static shots and action scenes alike, using his deep focus to draw our eyes around each composition.

Within their conflicting fabrications, all three witnesses are being sincere to some extent, and the only common lie among them is the presence of some courage, honour, and moral conviction in each narrator. Now with the woodcutter going back on his initial story, one has to wonder whether what he proposes is actually the objective truth, especially given that there are still holes in his tale – how did the dying samurai know the dagger was stolen if it was simply taken from his side and not drawn from his chest, for instance?

The point of Kurosawa’s complex structure here is not to lead us towards a single, definitive answer, and neither is it to simply reveal the difficulties in our search for truth. More than just being a bold exercise in narrative form, Rashomon is a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself, recognising it as an inherently subjective form of communication through which we understand the egos, insecurities, and shortcomings of other humans, and following on from that, our own as well. Framed within the meeting of three men whose identities are distributed across a spectrum of spiritual faith and nihilism, Rashomon even more broadly applies this study to the dramatic conflict between them, watching the priest’s faith in humanity dwindle right next to the commoner’s pessimistic taunts.

The beams and debris of the Rashomon gatehouse obstructing these frames, throwing off their balance.

Significant to the thread of despair running through the modern-day storyline is that angry storm which continues to pelt down around them, as if dolefully conjured up by the moral failings of the four dishonest witnesses. Kurosawa is unquestionably of a master of using weather formations to bring rich depth to his characters and an effervescent energy to his cinematography, but it also serves a formal purpose here in marking a striking contrast between the present day’s gloomy rain and the recurring low angles of the sun in the flashbacks, rendering the canopy’s branches as dense, black silhouettes. When he isn’t turning our eyes upwards, he will often instead cast the forest’s shadows across the faces of the bandit, samurai, and wife, setting up an intriguing conflict of light and darkness in both his scenic landscapes and intimate close-ups.

Formally recurring shots of the sun poking through the trees, brilliantly tying style to narrative.
And of course, Kurosawa extends this motif to the faces of his characters, casting shadows across their faces like a battle between truth and darkness.

Even within Kurosawa’s screenplay, the impact of weather is quietly influential, with the bandit claiming that the only reason he awoke from his nap and noticed the passing couple was the cool breeze ruffling the leaves above him. In this way, these atmospheric conditions become forces of a volatile, chaotic universe, shunning any belief that there may be a higher power guiding humans along a single true path by splitting itself into multiple realities, each one born in the dishonest minds of its inhabitants.

A real influence from John Ford with shots like these – the placement of the horizon and the inventive use of legs to frame characters in the background.

Kurosawa’s dextrous camerawork and editing are particularly integral to our navigation of these uncertain worlds, both working in tandem to offer multiple spins on the bandit and samurai’s thrillingly choreographed sword fights, and expertly blocking each narrator as the heroes of their own stories. Especially remarkable is the agile camera movements which nimbly adopt the perspectives of the individual storytellers, often moving in close on their faces before rapidly swinging the camera around to view the objects of their focus. It is no surprise that between the multiple characters who claim our attention with these superb close-ups, it is Toshiro Mifune’s bandit who transfixes us the most, pulling off wild mood swings, fits of manic laughter, and eventually an emotional strain which sees beads of sweat cling to his long, black hair and beard.

Inspired camera movements taking on the perspective of each character.
He’s just one part of a larger ensemble, but Toshiro Mifune is by far the stand out as the bandit. Kurosawa’s close-ups serve him well here – we can see every drop of sweat on his face and in his beard.

Whether he really did kill the samurai or not amounts to very little in the end. It is not so much the murder than the cowardice and duplicity of the entire ensemble which stokes Rashomon’s cynicism, and the discovery of an abandoned baby in the gate house at first simply seems to confirm the inherent evil of humanity. But just as the violent storm is not a permanent fixture here, neither is corruption an inevitability for those possessing the self-awareness to reflect on their own fallibilities. Along with the emergence of the sun from behind the clouds comes the woodcutter’s decision to take the baby in as his own, marking what might be the first truly selfless act in the film. There may not be any undisputed truths to uncover here, but for Kurosawa, the next best thing is to at least use the imperfect perspectives of others to reflect on the self-serving lies in our own. It is only with as daring a narrative structure as the one which he builds here that Rashomon’s ruminations on subjectivity, truth, and storytelling can find such peaceful resolve in the acceptance of an uncertain, chaotic world.

The baby emblematic of humanity’s potential for either good or evil, and for all his cynicism, Kurosawa doesn’t falter ending Rashomon on a hopeful note.

Rashomon is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 55min

More than just being the name of a street in Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is where stars fade away into the night, each one replaced the next morning by a younger, fresher luminary travelling along an identical trajectory. Norma Desmond is one such has-been who burned brightly in her youth, and yet in her old age (or at least, what Hollywood considers old) she has tumbled from the ranks of high society, her career opportunities drying up along with her youthful vitality. Though she is no longer a sex symbol, she tries to recapture that glamour in extravagant makeup and clothing, and frequently watches the old silent films she starred in, basking in her younger self’s charm and allure which has been lost over the years. No longer does she venture outside her colossal, Gothic mansion, cluttered with unsettling sculptures, archaic furniture, and framed photographs of her own likeness. Instead, she traps herself inside its dark, gloomy chambers, turning it into a tomb where unfulfilled dreams come to wither away and die.

Our introduction to Norma from behind these slats – a ghost trapped in a haunted house, peering out at the world from a dark, hollow space.

And indeed, Billy Wilder recognises the full power in using this antiquated set as an eerie, hollow space that seems to radiate ethereality. Much like Charles Foster Kane’s mansion Xanadu, this great manor is an extension of Norma Desmond’s own hollow self-obsession that swallows her up. It is grandiose in its décor, and yet the upkeep is clearly lacking. Even when our protagonist, Joe Gillis, first arrives by pure happenstance, it carries the atmosphere of a haunted house, with voices calling out to him from inside as if he was always destined to arrive. Outside, he notes “the ghost of a tennis court” that clearly hasn’t been used in decades, and a drained pool containing nothing but debris and rats. During his stay, his presence injects some life into this dreary environment, as we see Norma visibly brighten and the unused pool fill back up with water. And yet for as long as she haunts this “grim sunset castle”, the stench of death and decay can’t be erased entirely, and somewhat fatalistically, that pool which Gillis restored marks the site of his own demise. This place is not just a tomb for Norma, but for all those who get caught up in her deathly aura.

Surrounded by archaic furniture and framed photos of her glory days, Norma’s mansion has the atmosphere of a stagnant, eerie tomb.

That Wilder’s skill as a director has often been overshadowed by his remarkable flair for screenwriting should not be taken at all as a slight against the astounding filmmaking on display here. As much as Sunset Boulevard is a tour-de-force in mise-en-scène and noir lighting, the fact remains that its script is its greatest asset, and easily belongs among the greatest in film history. There is its incisive cutting right to the heart of America’s superficial movie industry, its snappy bounce from scene to scene in crisp, elegiac prose expressed through voiceover and dialogue, and of course, the nuanced construction of one of the most tragic cinematic characters in Norma Desmond, whose lines resound with both pride and misery of grandiose proportions.

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

A career-defining performance for Gloria Swanson. She is raising her voice in dramatic cadences, gliding through her mansion like a spectre, and then puts on these performances for her guest, Joe Gillis – she is entirely lost in her own sad bravado.

Though Gloria Swanson quite literally steals the spotlight of Sunset Boulevard with her elaborate performance of a crippled ego hiding behind delusions of grandeur, this is also a story of hubris for a man living his own quieter self-deception. Gillis is a struggling screenwriter who may or may not have the talent to actually make it big, and so just as Norma latches onto his youth as a path to a comeback, he hitches onto her as a doorway into the industry. The line that divides the two is far thinner than he would like to acknowledge, as he too thirsts after success and adoration from those around him, taking pride in Betty’s love for him over her boyfriend. If Norma is “sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career”, then he is doing the same from the opposite direction, maintaining a contrived illusion that the key to fame can be found through reviving that which has already decayed.

And yet as all hope of manifesting these dreams plunge, such delusions only grow in magnitude, consuming these starry-eyed idealists in a magnificently surreal cocoon of falsehoods. Their fates have been written out from the start, as Joe’s voice from beyond the grave introduces his past self in third person like the two are separate people, and then emphasises the uncanniness of his destiny with a fantastically dreamlike shot looking up at his floating body from the bottom of Norma’s pool.

Surreal imagery in this fatalistic noir.

As for Norma Desmond herself, the performance of her own majesty was never going to break even under the most extreme pressures. In one brief moment of eminence, she has finally captured the attention of the press, public, and even Hollywood celebrities, the spotlight literally turned on her as she descends the steps of her manor for the last time. With a melodramatic monologue and a wide-eyed, theatrical advance towards us, the audience, she seems to become one with the camera, at which point the shot blurs until all definition is gone. The reason for her newfound infamy and its inevitably devastating consequences matter little. As far as she is concerned, she will forever live in this singular instant, her mind fully devoured by the same ostentatious vanity that Hollywood instils in all its most beloved, yet easily disposable stars.

An advance towards the camera, and a blur into obscurity – an all-time great cinematic ending.

Sunset Boulevard is available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

John Huston | 1hr 52min

Beneath a low-hanging lamp in a shady room, four men gather around a floor plan spread across a small table. The smoke from their cigarettes wafts through the beam of light shining directly down upon their faces, while above them darkness cloaks their covert discussion in a thick air of sheltered secrecy. There is no mistaking the expressionistic lighting, low angles, and rigid blocking for being anything other than watermarks of film noir, which John Huston himself had a hand in kick-starting some nine years earlier, but he is also doing far more than just doubling back on old tricks from The Maltese Falcon. The Asphalt Jungle breaks noir convention in being neither a hardboiled detective story, nor the tale of one man’s descent into corruption, as it instead develops into a tight, sharp heist movie, following the exploits and comeuppance of a skilled gang of crooks destined to fail by nature of their own inevitable flaws, and the cruelty of a fatalistic universe.

Huston arranges his actors in tight formations like these, using the lighting from low-hanging lamps to emphasise the claustrophobia.

Beyond its inexorable influence on virtually every future caper movie, from the films of Jean-Pierre Melville to Quentin Tarantino, The Asphalt Jungle sets a perfectionistic standard of plotting that has rarely been topped. The 12-minute heist scene itself is a masterclass in tension from Huston, equalling even Hitchcock in its patient long takes that follow key items around the room, the careful detail of each intricate step unfolding in close to real time, and the editing between each crew member performing their roles, all the while quietly managing their anxiety. Outside these walls, the “asphalt jungle” of the city is implied in the grimy hardships endured by working class criminals looking to make a fortune, but in this jewellery store, the obstacles take on literal significance. Here, it is relatively easy to slip beneath the electric eye, and to hammer through brick walls, as these physical barriers do little to stand in the way of men used to far greater challenges.

Always an emphasis on the painstaking, methodical detail of the heist, building up the fragile importance every single action.

But there is no such thing as a completely watertight plan in this world of tragically flawed humans, and all it takes is the unintentional disruption of the city’s power grid to start shifting everything off course. From this point on, Huston expands our perspective a little so we may watch both sides of the following cat-and-mouse chase, further driving in the sharp tension of the piece by revealing the exhilarating proximity with which they scrape by each other. Even in the tightest of situations, the nimble lies and improvisations of these crooks are still not enough to compensate for their shortcomings in the long run.

Chiaroscuro lighting all through this cat-and-mouse chase, as the law slowly closes in around the thieves.

Just as the mastermind of the heist, “Doc” Riedenschneider, thinks he has finally gotten away, he pauses for a few extra minutes at an out-of-town diner to watch a young girl dance to a jukebox. Had he left even slightly earlier and rejected the temptation of his lustful thoughts, perhaps he might have been able to evade the police officers turning up during the song. The only difference between freedom and capture is “about as long as it takes to play a phonograph record,” Doc wryly notes, recognising the weak minds of both himself and his captor who lingered for the same reason. Evidently, human vulnerabilities lie on both sides of the law.

“We’ll get the last one too,” Commissioner Hardy claims when Dix becomes the only man left for them to catch, though he doesn’t seem to be speaking so much on behalf of the police force as he is for the laws of a universe looking to restore balance and order. This is the last we see of Hardy, but in true noir fashion even when Dix is beyond the grasp of the law, his own sins and wounds fatefully catch up with him. Stumbling into the bright sunlight of the country estate he grew up on as a child, he mentally regresses back to a time when his innocence was still intact, collapsing in the farm’s open fields. In the closing shot as Huston pulls his camera back from the horses nuzzling Dix’s body, some twisted form of tragic hope is restored – hope that he finally managed to find some peace, far away from the dark unscrupulousness of the asphalt jungle.

Throwing shadows across faces in tightly framed close-ups as we approach the climax.

The Asphalt Jungle is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.