Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Underworld Beauty (1958) Movie Thoughts

Regardless of what Seijun Suzuki has stated during many an interview, there was always something striking about his works. And this is even before his cult-legend streak throughout the 1960s as something of a stylistic firebrand, tinkering with staples of crime drama, not to mention with the possibilities of narrative film itself. But before his long road to being considered a film fan darling, his earliest days filming for Nikkatsu presented a great deal of effective meat and potatoes material for him to work with. Being the classic method, knowing the standards before blasting them, is integral here as a young Suzuki is given chance to play ball with the best. Enter the shadow-drenched, Underworld Beauty. A noir piece of the most classic ilk, translated through a very wild, lush, and eager lens.

Back in the city after three years in prison, Miyamoto (Michitara Mizushima) seeks to honor a fellow thief who has fallen on hard luck after their last score by way of a hidden satchel of diamonds. Reconvening with old gang boss Oyane(Shinsuke Ashida), a plan to sell the rocks goes south when an intervening party crashes the sale, leaving the hard luck friend on the edge of death, and the diamonds deep in his belly. Suddenly, it's a regular greed-for-all, as Miyamoto struggles to reclaim the quarry and to honor his debt as allegiances reveal their true natures. And with his friend's delinquent younger sister(Mari Shiraki) entrenched in the plot, honor is put to heavy task. Crossbreeding tried and true hard boiled character with an unexpected visual ambition, Beauty plays sly in ways that both compliment and subvert the noir subgenre.

Suzuki does ample work here, creating new renditions of then already famous archetypes. Especially in the form of Mizushima's world weary Miyamoto. A vision of a thief borne out of necessity rather than greed, his is a quiet, understated performance that grows on viewers on levels bordering on stealth. By the finale, it becomes hard not to feel wholly invested in his quest to infiltrate a hungry nest of wolves in the name of a friend. Equally potent, is Ashida's Oyane as a man driven to the opposite by similar circumstances. Patient, but no less unflagging in his doggedness, his is a quietly menacing piece of work. Also worthy of note is Kaku Takashina's grinning creep, Osawa, and Shiraki, playing the wayward Akiko with unfettered fierceness. Even Hiroshi Kondo's borderline possessed bad boyfriend, Arita makes a solid impression under Suzuki's watch. 

So when considering how well the cast works, much of it is due to the director's already evident talent for visual power. As much as he wrings the best possible performances out of his cast, there is also an almost greedy drive to make every crowded, and dank environment of the film pop with detail. Being his first work to be made with "Nikkatsuscope", allowing him to paint some truly impressive images. For the kind of material he is working with, it becomes mere window dressing for what he does with space and objects, as if eager to embellish the working script by Susumu Saji. Deep focus captures great amounts of nightlife, as well as the seedy underbelly Miyamoto must infiltrate. It's so potent that once we reach the film's ultimate climax, we are treated to a most welcome visual summation of all that has occurred. Delving so far into the realm of what diamonds mean, versus their original state. Our hero must face hell before reaching for any light of redemption. It's a little marvel of a final act.

So for a one-time studio lifer like Suzuki, it's easy to merely pass judgment on a film as this as being something of a workman era mark. But to do this would be a grand disservice, as Underworld Beauty remains an enjoyable romp throughout. Fans of his later, more subversive work might do well to dig a little further back into the formative years, and find this one a serviceable case of charting the cartography of crime cinema. Just solid enough to be great mainstream entertainment, and rich enough to be considered a thrilling hint of the rambunctiousness to come. At the finale, when sunlight has finally come to our eyes, it is even here that confinement awaits all who seek paradise within the same pool. Suzuki seemed to understand this quite well. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before escape in a most colorful fashion felt necessary.

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