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Monday, June 23, 2008

Classics 2: "Yojimbo" and "12 Angry Men"

Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo

Akira Kurosawa was one of the acknowledged masters of world cinema, making movies watched and admired the world over like Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Throne of Blood and many others. Last week I had the opportunity of watching one of his classics via a Kurosawa festival all this month on Zee Studio.Yojimbo is a homage to the great cowboy westerns of the 40's and 50's. Perhaps fittingly, it was remade in Hollywood as the Dollars trilogy, featuring Clint Eastwood as "The Man With No Name" in the role which was, ironically, to make him a household name.

Yojimbo stars Kurosawa favourite Toshiro Mifune(who also starred in Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood) as a wandering ronin, or masterless samurai warrior. Mifune lights up the screen with his imposing presence, wry laconic wit, and an unmistakeable swagger. Watch out for the scene in the beginning where he decides to go in the direction offered by a falling twig. He lands up in a small town ravaged by two warring ganglords, battling it out for stakes in the local gambling racket. He takes refuge with an elderly coffin-maker, whose business is booming because of the ongoing gangwars.But things change when the battle gets too hot ,as he puts it "When the battle goes too far, neither side bother with cofffins anyway...."

Yojimbo is a gripping story exceptionally well-told with stellar performances toplined with the awesome Mifune, in a performance which launched the template for a thousand imitators in Hollywood and Bollywood alike.Kurosawa raises the simplest of scenes to an altogether different level with devices like overly theatric, even comical music.In a particularly memorable scene,the samurai, calling himself Sanjiro(meaning thirtysomething) causes battle between the two rival dons. He then pulls out of the battle, selects a vantage point high above the battlefield, and sits there watching the cowardly troops in action.There is much posturing, a lot of battle-cries and and sword-swishing, but neither side is willing or daring enough to actually charge forward and fight. They go one step forwards and two steps back.Sanjuro watches all this, amused at the spineless behaviour of the "hardened" gangsters.

It is moments like these that make Yojimbo an enduring classic and a must-watch for all lovers of cinema.

Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men"
What would you say to a movie that is shot almost entirely indoors(the only outdoor shot is the last one which shows two of the characters talking outside the courtroom),has no major plot twists and all that ever happens is 12 middle-aged to old men talking, seated around a table? You couldn't be blamed for dismissing this as just another futile attempt at being "avant-garde" which falls flat on its face, right?

Instead, Sidney Lumet's 1957 film "12 Angry Men" is an engrossing film, tense and taut in its suspense helped along the way by superb performances by an ensemble cast headed by Henry Fonda and featuring some of the prominent actors of the time like Joseph Sweeney, Lee Cobb and Ed Begley. The 12 men as implied in the title are jurors in a murder trial where the accused is an 18 year old who has supposedly stabbed his father to death following an argument between them earlier in the evening.

Initially, only Fonda even considers the boy's innocence, because of the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against the kid, and inconsistencies in his own testimony to the police.Because this is a murder trial, nothing short of a unanimous verdict will do.Much to the anger of some of the other jurors,this means that they have to sit at the table longer(Jack Warden, playing a working class average Joe, wants to get this over and done with as he has tickets for that night's baseball game).It is then that the deep-rooted prejudices of many of the jurors spill over.

Whether it's Lee J. Cobb playing a man whose son has ran away from home or Ed Begley as the bigoted loudmouth who hates slum-dwellers and minorities, the performances in this film speak for themselves.

Talk about intensity.....

Henry Fonda is superbly economical as the thoughtful juror who coaxes the others to look beyond the bare bones of the case. But this proves to be a tricky job as some of the men are shockingly blood-thirsty towards the boy owing to their own rigid predispositions and biases. The underlying air of tension and unease is masterfully sustained by the director throughout the 90-minute duration of thefilm.The enduring popularity of the film can be ascertained by the fact that it remains #11 on the IMDB all-time ratings chart, with a rating of 8.8/10

This is a taut and terrific film, cinema stripped down to its basics and rigorously put through its paces.Go watch it to rediscover the meaning of the word "drama".

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