Sanjuro, a wandering samurai enters a rural town in nineteenth century Japan. After learning from the innkeeper that the town is divided between two gangsters, he plays one side off against the other. His efforts are complicated by the arrival of the wily Unosuke, the son of one of the gangsters, who owns a revolver. Unosuke has Sanjuro beaten after he reunites an abducted woman with her husband and son, then massacres his father's opponents. During the slaughter, the samurai escapes with the help of the innkeeper; but while recuperating at a nearby temple, he learns of innkeeper's abduction by Unosuke, and returns to the town to confront him. Written by
Bernard Keane <BKeane2@email.dot.gov.au>
In the middle '20's, Dashiell Hammett (best known as author of "The Maltese Falcon") wrote two unrelated novels, "The Glass Key", about Ned Beaumont an alcoholic gambler who uses duplicity to save his mob boss from taking a murder rap for a corrupt politician (all the while fending off a rival mobster), and 'Red Harvest", in which a nameless private eye (also alcoholic, a status shared by many Hammett heroes) is hired to clean up a small town kept in fear by two warring boot-leg mobs.
I believe "Red Harvest" did make it to film in the '30's, but I haven't been able to track that down and never saw it. "The Glass Key" was first made into a (not too successful) film in 1935, and then re-made in 1942. The remake concerns us here. Directed by Stuart Heisler in a style that compounds the typical crime film briskness of the '30's with the shaded undertones of the then developing 'noir' genre, it is actually quite a good film, and in a number of ways daring for its period. True to the novel, literally everyone in the film is corrupt in some way, and especially fascinating is the appearance of William Bendix in a minor role of an overtly homosexual sadist of a thug. Alan Ladd plays Ned Beaumont as a true anti-hero, cold, calculating, true to no ethic but his own - a type Hollywood at that time was having problems presenting, since the strong ethics of the character undercut all the assumptions of sociopathy of such types popular at the time. The film finally betrays itself with a "kiss-and-make-up" final scene that completely undercuts the ethical problematic of the novel (in which Beaumont finally betrays his boss by running off with the boss' fiancée). But until then, the movie moves towards its dark "who-dun-it" revelation rapidly and filled with tension.
There is a scene dead center in "The Glass Key" where Beaumont is captured by the rival mob boss and tortured by the sadistic thug (which is from the novel), and filled with Freudian undertones due to the homosexuality of the torturing thug (Bendix) (also implicit in the novel). I think it was Japanese cinema expert Donald Ritchie from whom I remember an anecdote that it was this scene that fascinated Akira Kurosawa to such an extent that he felt compelled to make a film based on a Hammett novel. Interestingly, he did not do a remake of "The Glass Key", however. Instead, he transposed "Red Harvest" to the Japan of the civil wars of the 1860's, rewriting the nameless private eye as an equally nameless wandering samurai (played with exquisite panache by Toshiro Mifuni), while at the same time parodying the typical *chambara* (swordfight film) popular in Japan. I refer of course to "Yojombo" (1962). Nonetheless, the the torture sequence is lifted from "The Glass Key" and interjected as a pivotal scene in "Yojimbo". A couple of subtractions and additions need be noted here: Kurosawa strips the Freudian subtext out of the torture sequence completely, so that the torture becomes a study in the what Hannah Arendt referred to as the "banality" of evil" - the torturers are just doing a job. This fits neatly with the critique of capitalism implicit in the film, and which is equally implicit in the Hammett original, so the loss of Freudian content goes by unnoticed.
On the other hand, Kurosawa and Mifune add an earthiness to the nameless hero lacking in Hammett's tension filled original: Mifune's samurai is always scratching, eating, cringing or sneering. Perhaps this is to make up for the subtraction of the element of alcoholism that was the chief weakness of Hammett's anti-hero. But it also has the effect of rounding out the character so that he becomes human to us in a way Hammett's anti-hero is not.
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