Sunday, June 22, 2014

From the Rental Vault

James Bond has been onscreen more than 20 times, played by six different actors. Japanese cinema has a similar icon, the blind swordsman Zatoichi, who was the focus of 26 movies between 1962 and 1989 and played by Shintaro Katsu. For good measure, the actor took the role for four seasons on television as well.

Several Japanese moves set during the Edo period of the early 19th century use the Zatoichi mythos as their backdrop. One of those is 2008's Ichi, with Haruka Ayase playing a blind musician and swordswoman originally trained by the great Zatoichi and trying to find him again. The characters actually have the same name, as the word zato translates more as a rank than a part of a regular name.

While on her trek, Ichi meets the honorable but seemingly bumbling samurai Toma Fujihara (Takao Osawa), and both of them find themselves caught up in a struggle between the samurai-owned inns of a local village and a gang of mercenary bandits led by the disfigured and dishonored Banki (Shido Nakamura).

All three leads are maimed or disfigured in a way by events from their pasts -- Banki by being burned over half his face, Toma by a family tragedy and Ichi by a past betrayal. Director Fumihiko Sori shows how each copes with his or her wound -- Banki allows his ugliness to consume him, Toma remains crippled by his memories and Ichi avoids further betrayal by closing herself off from everyone she meets. In the final confrontation, the three battle against these deep hurts as much as against their opponents in an interesting conclusion. Ichi is a little confusing until the random flashbacks are given some coherent explanation, and the character's blankness for much of the film gives Ayase little room to work as an actress. But as a historical drama used to consider some interesting ideas about suffering and how it's borne, Ichi turns out to be worth the time.
Randolph Scott probably hit his peak as an actor during the seven movies he did with director Budd Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown and screenwriter Burt Kennedy. This "Ranown Cycle" of low-budget, no-frills, straight-ahead Westerns pared the stories to their simplest and straightest and showcased Scott as a straight-talking, straight-shooting man of action who always wound up doing the right thing, even if he was a little off the straight and narrow to start with.

Although 1953's The Stranger Wore a Gun uses these same elements (including production from Brown), it shows just how special a mix the Ranown Cycle was by misusing them at almost every turn. Scott is Jeff Travis, a spy for William Quantrill's raiders during the Civil War. When he discovers how the increasingly brutal Quantrill no longer even pretends to follow the rules of war in his attacks on civilians, Travis leaves the raiders. But his connection with them remains widely known, and at the urging of Josie (Claire Trevor), he escapes a fatal riverboat quarrel and heads west to Arizona.

There, Josie's friend Jules Mourret (George Macready) calls in his favor for helping Travis escape by enlisting him to help steal gold from the stagecoach run by Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon) and her father. Travis soon loses his taste for deceiving the Conroys and tries to undermine Mourret's operation while avoiding confrontation with the crime boss's henchmen, played by Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin.

Stranger has at least two layers and four plot turns too many; we haven't even mentioned the role played by Mexican gangster Degas and we don't really need to because it promises more than one payoff it never delivers, further confusing the story. Scott's turn from wrong to right never convinces for the simple reason that no one watching Randolph Scott in a movie is going to believe he would stay party to a plot to rob a widower and his beautiful daughter. He's also never convincing when we're supposed to believe he's falling for said daughter, since he was thirty-two years older than Weldon and Claire Trevor's experience and attitude make her Josie a much better fit with Scott's Travis.

Most of these same elements, good and bad, and many of the same people would show up again in the Ranown Cycle. But together with Boetticher and Kennedy, Scott and Brown will use them in a recipe that makes much more satisfying movies than Stranger.


Todd Bergman said...

I was really interest in Ichi. I've enjoyed the Zatoichi movies. Thanks for the info.

Friar said...

My pleasure. Which does not mean I am not still consumed with jealousy over the Comic-con trip...

Todd Bergman said...

Planning Wizard World/Tulsa Comic Con in November.

It was more than I expected and beyond my imagination to what would happen. When we have a face-to-face meet, I'll be glad to gush about it.