DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Stray Dog - The Criterion Collection (RECOMMENDED).

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Herb Kane, May 20, 2004.

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  1. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    [​IMG]

    Stray Dog
    The Criterion Collection





    Studio: Criterion Collection
    Year: 1949
    Rated: Not Rated
    Film Length: 122 Minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Standard
    Audio: DD Mono
    Color/B&W: B&W
    Languages: Japanese
    Subtitles: English
    MSRP: $39.95
    Package: Keep Case





    The Feature:
    The next couple of months are rather ambitious ones for Criterion. There are four titles to be released in May alone which include, Fritz Lang’s The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night and the feature film from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, Stray Dog, which stars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura.

    In the midst of an excruciating heat wave, young rookie Detective Murakami (played by Toshiro Mifune) is on his way home on a crowded public bus when he discovers his service pistol has been stolen – pickpocketed. He exits the bus frantic, making eye contact with the suspect and engages him in a foot pursuit but he soon looses him among the nooks and crannies of the alleyways and streets. Ashamed and embarrassed, Murakami reports to his superior officer to break the news of his stolen pistol. He is assigned a new partner to work with, Detective Sato (played by Takashi Shimura) in the Homicide Branch. Unfortunately, the pistol has wound up in the hands of a troubled and desperate young man who has just returned from the war thinking the world owes him everything.

    As the investigation unravels, it becomes clear the pistol has been used in a number of crimes including robberies and a recent homicide. Absolutely ashamed and humiliated by his neglect, Murakami becomes almost obsessed in locating his weapon. What the young detective lacks in knowledge and investigating skills is made up for with enthusiasm, but his eagerness to go off half cocked, only serves to hamper the investigation. His new partner, Detective Sato is a seasoned 25 year veteran who’s done and seen it all. Sato is trying to teach the young rookie that the investigation will take time and that he must find the patience. But Murakami is insistent that something tragic is about to happen. Will they be able to thwart the tragedy Murakami suspects is about to take place…?

    This was my first screening of Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, and I must say that I was extremely impressed with this film which does a commendable job at keeping you on the edge of your seat for two hours. The writing (written by Akira Kurosawa and Ryuzo Kikushima) is extremely tight and the acting is brilliant. Surprisingly, there are many qualities and characteristics of Film Noir that appear throughout the film including Murakami’s sense of desperation partnered up with the seasoned “hard boiled” detective. The female character (not really a femme fatale in this case) is Harumi Namaki, (played by Keiko Awaji) a showgirl whose dutiful allegiance to her wanted boyfriend is unshakeable. There are plenty of war-time scarcities and an oppressive enough mood to allow this picture an almost quintessential Film Noir atmosphere. Great stuff..!!

    The Feature: 4.5/5
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    Video:
    Slightly disappointing. While there are many examples of the film looking terrific, most of the film is plagued with various problems. It would appear that several of the reels look pretty good, however the majority of the film is in pretty rough shape.

    Starting with black levels, they were adequate but not necessarily deep while whites had an overall gray appearance to them. Shadow detail was rather lean and there was only a moderate level of grayscale.

    As for image definition, there were many great examples of sharp well defined images but for the most part the picture looked soft – very soft, even dupey looking at times. There was a moderate amount of fine to medium film grain but the film lacked any real sense of dimensionality.

    The biggest problem with this film was light shimmer and instability. There is a lot of shimmer which did become a distraction. Same thing with dirt and scratches. There were dozens of vertical scratches – many more than I anticipated some of which were pretty severe. There were also instances of dust and dirt. Thankfully there were no problems regarding artifacting or compression errors.

    I have no idea what condition the source elements were in - I’m assuming they were rough and regardless of my criticisms, this isn’t a bad video transfer, but to be clear there are many problems that do exist.

    Video: 3.5/5
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    Audio:
    I don’t really have a lot to say regarding the Dolby Digital Monaural track, but it too has a few problems that need to be discussed.

    First off there is a significant amount of hiss present. As I’ve said in the past I run with electrostats all around which tend to accentuate hiss so no doubt that might be a slight factor. It’s not necessarily the type of film (or unless you understand Japanese) that needs to listened to at reference which obviously exacerbates the hiss, so take that into consideration as well.

    Dialogue was not always intelligible or clear and had a tendency to become compressed and shrill like with the overall tonal quality of the soundtrack slightly on the raw side.

    Needless to say, the overall range of the track is thin with little to speak of other than a few gunshots and a much needed thunderstorm…

    Audio: 3.5/5
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    Special Features:
    This disc comes with three special features.
    [*] The first special feature is a Commentary which was produced in 2003 by Criterion which features Stephen Prince author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. The commentary is rather academically focused mainly on the various techniques chosen by Kurosawa. It’s rather dry but does give us an important overview of postwar Japan. Fans of Kurosawa and those interested in film technique will appreciate this style of commentary.
    [*] The next feature is Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create which is presented fullscreen in Japanese with English subtitles. This is a wonderful documentary which is a “making of” Stray Dog and offers up a number of great tidbits relating to the film. There is also an interesting tidbit relating to an American animal activist whose attempt at derailing the film failed when she erroneously claimed Kurosawa injected a healthy dog with rabies for the opening shots of the film. The special, features a couple of clips from stars of the film, Keiko Awaji and Isao Kimura. Also discussed were the extensive sets that were created and the many obstacles that the crew was faced with during the production of the film. There are also a couple of examples of what was touched up for the DVD restoration. Duration: 32:41 minutes.
    [*] Finally, there is a 16 page booklet insert which features Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog from his book Something Like An Autobiography. There is also an essay written by film critic Terrence Rafferty. This is a great little booklet (actually bound like a small book) with a bevy of screenshots and a number of facts relating to the film and the great director.

    While I’m not necessarily a fan of a technique based commentary, I thoroughly enjoyed the “making of” documentary. Very well done.

    Special Features: 3.5/5
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    **Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**



    Final Thoughts:
    What a pleasant surprise - this film is as good as any Kurosawa film I’ve ever seen, perhaps even better. This is a fabulous character study which focuses on the naive and idealistic young rookie who, throughout the entire film, remains morally troubled to a point of obsession by a sense of guilt due to the crimes that have been committed with his stolen gun.

    The A/V presentations are surely acceptable but the presentation certainly doesn’t compare to many of the classic title releases we have recently witnessed. Just to be clear, I would have easily given this DVD a “Highly Recommended” had the A/V been superior but fans of Kurosawa and Film Noir junkies should be pleased with this film that easily gets “Recommended”.

    Overall Rating: 3.5/5 (not an average)
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    Recommended..!!



    Release Date: May 25th, 2004
     
  2. LorenzoL

    LorenzoL Second Unit

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    Thanks for the review Herb. I want to pick this up since I have become a big Kurosawa fan.

    It's just too bad that the AV and sound are average for a Criterion release. Maybe that's the best that they could do with the available material.
     
  3. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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    Definitely all over this, I saw it in a theatrical screening a few years ago and loved it. I would guess that Criterion did the best they could with what they had to work with. Some of their other Kurosawa discs have oustanding picture and sound quality (notably Throne Of Blood and Hidden Fortress), while others are OK but have their flaws (Rashomon, Ikiru). I'm sure it's a question of source elements in most cases with them.

    Here's an angle for approaching this movie if you've never seen it, I know I'll be considering it when I watch it again: this could be considered as a sort of Japanese cousin of The Third Man (they were made at about the same time, so I'm quite sure neither film could have influenced the other). Lots of differences, to be sure, but consider some of the major similarities: great noir style, set in a major city (Vienna in one case, Tokyo in the other) that was still clearly devastated by WWII bombing. The rubble even comes into effect at times, helping to heighten the tension and stylization of the film's atmosphere.
     
  4. Lew Crippen

    Lew Crippen Executive Producer

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    Nice job Herb. I saw this last year as a part of the Kurosawa/Mifune retrospective and, IIRC, the audio on the source was about the quality you mention.

    Well worth anyone's time, regardless.
     
  5. Brook K

    Brook K Lead Actor

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    I saw a new print of Stray Dog last year and the material is in similar shape to what is presented on the DVD.
     
  6. Haggai

    Haggai Producer

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    Just picked this up today and watched it. Great movie, of course, just as I remembered from having seen it in a screening a few years ago. One thing I remember from that screening was some mediocre subtitles: specifically, in the baseball game scene where Mifune and Shimura are talking to each other near the top of one of the stadium tunnels, with the bright sky forming most of the backdrop, the white subtitles were totally invisible, completely blending in with the bright sun! No problem at all with that on this disc, the subtitles are nice and crisp, and easy to read. It seems like a pretty solid translation as well, with nothing standing out or calling attention to itself.

    I find the little coda between the two principles in the hospital at the end rather disappointing. It's kind of a sell-out, after the magnificently riveting showdown between Mifune and the "stray dog." This movie is quite Hitchcockian in many scenes, particularly with the baseball game (suspenseful showdown in the midst of a big crowd, a frequent Hitchcock device), and the (totally awesome!) hotel scene with Shimura on the phone where he's involved in a cat-and-mouse with the villain, plus several other scenes. Hitchcock was often great at those short post-climax codas right at the end, like in Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and North By Northwest. I don't think it detracts much in this case from what is an outstanding movie overall, but it's too bad Kurosawa couldn't come up with one of those good final mini-scenes.
     

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