“Drunken Angel” – A.J. Hakari

They say that consumption is the most romantic of all diseases. A cough here, a worried expression there, and wham, here come the waterworks. But what worked for Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! doesn’t quite work the same way for Toshiro Mifune in Drunken Angel. A little-seen tale from Akira Kurosawa, at least in comparison to much more well-known features like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, this flick is actually a pretty good primer for first-timers to the Japanese great’s work. Sentimental enough to have been a product of old Hollywood, yet still indicative of Kurosawa’s style of storytelling, Drunken Angel is a safe bet to enrich foreign film buffs and casual moviegoers alike.

Sanada (Takashi Shimura) is a doctor in a rundown, bombed-out Japanese slum. Not one to sugarcoat the truth, Sanada is almost too blunt at times, dedicated to keeping those around him alive and healthy at all costs — even though he indulges in a couple of vices too many when he’s off-duty. Into his office one night strolls Matsunaga (Mifune), a local gangster who commands equal parts fear and respect. He comes in to get a bullet removed from his hand, but Sanada ends up uncovering another malady: a case of tuberculosis that’s about to hit Matsunaga hard. Matsunaga laughs off the doc’s orders to stay off the booze and do whatever he can to take care of himself, causing an angry rift between him and Sanada. But as Matsunaga’s symptoms begin to take their toll on his well-being, the arrival of his old boss (Reisaburo Yamamoto), recently released from prison, proceeds to affect not only his life but also that of Sanada for the worse.

Compared to the epic storytelling of Seven Samurai or the depiction of a claustrophobic corporate culture in The Bad Sleep Well, Drunken Angel is likely the most user-friendly of all of Kurosawa’s films, in terms of accessibility to audiences on this side of the pond. Released in 1948, one has the feeling that this story could easily be told in America, directed by Billy Wilder, and pairing Spencer Tracy with Marlon Brando to play the gruff but well-intentioned doctor and the slick gangster, respectively, with minimal changes to the script. In the end, Drunken Angel’s soapy quality ends up working both for and against it. This style frequently finds itself at odds with the film’s noirish atmosphere, a stark mood that fits right in with the story’s postwar environment. Sanada’s living conditions serve as a chilling reflection of his one-man fight to improve the lives of those around him, a nearby pond teeming with disease providing a reminder that darkness can exist under the most serene of exteriors. But the transition from this pessimistic yet realistic aura to admittedly corny melodrama, complete with swelling orchestra cues and wispy dialogue, results in a handful of awkward moments that seem strange, coming from as level-headed a filmmaking master such as Kurosawa.

Nevertheless, Kurosawa presses onward with his story, and such moments end up being fortunately few and far between over the course of Drunken Angel. Plus, the flick’s histrionic side plays a sizable part in forming the relationship between Sanada and Matsunaga. In their own ways, both men could be considered the eponymous “drunken angel”; in Sanada’s sense, his habit of getting tanked whenever he’s not helping patients supports the term in a more literal context, while Matsunaga’s coming-around is slow and steady, evolving from a volatile Yakuza man to an ailing young man realizing he has to do some atoning for past sins in a hurry. Already benefiting from a screenplay that allows their characters just the right amount of development and breathing room, Sanada and Mifune perform brilliantly in their roles. Shimura brings real depth to his role, expanding Sanada beyond being just a curmudgeonly do-gooder, a man whose face shows how much the years have worn down what good will he had to begin with. Mifune adds another outstanding performance to a roster overflowing with such turns, churning out great work as a gangster who hardly refuses to acknowledge his illness until it’s too late.

With a periodic cornball streak and a tendency to drag having a negative effect on the proceedings, Drunken Angel isn’t quite a heavenly delight. But when Kurosawa sets his mind to it, this early effort serves as a compelling tale of hope and redemption eeking out from life’s teensiest cracks.

 

Rating: ★★★☆

 

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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