Cruel Gun Story
I find 1964’s Cruel Gun Story neither unusually cruel nor necessarily gun-centric — it’s more 1950s-era American film noir with a harder bite and a more defined sense of iniquitous cool than it is the morality tale its title suggests. Fact is is that it’s a gleaming heist picture which walks and talks tough until the goings really get rough and all its anti-heroes have to dispose of their confidence and fight to survive, albeit with fear in their eyes.
The film, directed by Takumi Furukama, is an archetypal example of the Japanese gangster film — it’s something like John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), only swagger is more integral than the emotional turmoil which comes to overwhelm its characters. For years, it’s been a favorite of cinephiles with an inclination toward the obscure. Only recently has it become a more accessible fixture within its niche genre, released alongside four other aesthetically comparable features by the Criterion Collection in a “Nikkatsu Noir” pack only a few years ago. (The Nikkatsu Corporation is Japan’s oldest movie studio.)
Being that my expertise regarding the Japanese gangster movie is limited, I cannot say whether Cruel Gun Story is the premier film in the aforementioned Criterion set. But with its action sequences so impeccably conceived and its artistic tenacity so appealing, I’m apt to believe it might be: in place is filmmaking so self-assured and so engaging we’re pressed to think of a movie of its caliber so easily able to enrapture us.
The story is populated by a swamp of fiends with differing motivations and criminal tactics which sometimes prompts befuddlement. But it’s notwithstanding efficient and cartoonishly callous, which makes for a sizzling combination. Circling around an armed robbery gone sour, all the action concerns the four thugs hired to do the deed in the first place. Most attention is put onto Togawa (a terrific Joe Shishido), who’s just been released from prison, who just wants to go straight, and who is only participating because he thinks the money he’ll earn will help get his injured sister the surgery she needs to walk again. (Unwisely, he ignores all warnings from doctors that the case is a lost cause.)
Of course, no one is going to come out of the situation unscathed. But in an interesting departure from a great deal of American heist movies, it’s not so much the execution of the robbery itself which stands as the most thrilling. What’s thrilling are Furukama’s technical and stylistic choices (there are a couple instances of time-hopping that remind one of Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 masterpiece The Killing; all characters and sets are almost melodramatically lithe, dressed to the nines), and the eventual catastrophes which come with inevitable greed and betrayal.
It’s an effective action movie, with just enough humanistic dimension and memorable set pieces to ensure its lasting in the memory. You can’t usually bask in the glory of escapist fare as intelligent, as pleased with itself as Cruel Gun Story. Good thing Criterion has us covered. B+