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At the American Film Institute Theater Feb. 7-16

At the American Film Institute Theater Feb. 7-16

Akira Kurosawa made Ikiru in 1952, between The Idiot and The Seven Samurai, and in a sense it connects those disparate films. Though Ikiru (“to live”) is no samurai epic, it does become the tale of an intrepid maverick: Watanabe (Takashi Shimura, the Kurosawa regular who is not Toshiro Mifune) is a drab municipal bureaucrat who, discovering that he’s dying of stomach cancer, decides to challenge the glacial bureaucracy and abet a housewives’ campaign to get a sewage-contaminated lot replaced with a small playground. Yet the tale has more in common with its Dostoevsky-derived predecessor than with any of the director’s more swashbuckling films. Kurosawa and co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni constructed Ikiru as a dispassionate study; it opens with a view not of its protagonist but of an X-ray of his cancerous abdomen, and its account of Watanabe’s crusade is presented entirely as a series of flashbacks from his contentious wake.

A narrator introduces Watanabe as “not really even alive,” and later young ex-underling Toyo (Miki Odagiri) tells him that her nickname for him was “the mummy.” A few quick scenes reveal that Watanabe has been widowed for 20 years and that he is now emotionally distant from his son. Stomach pain sends Watanabe to a doctor, who tells him that he has a mild ulcer that will heal itself without treatment. But Watanabe has already chatted with a medical know-it-all in the waiting room, so he can decode the physician’s lies. (Cancer was long a taboo subject in Japan, and even today Japanese doctors don’t always tell cancer patients what’s wrong with them.) He instantly understands that he has a year or less left.

On the verge of achieving a 30-year perfect-attendance record, Watanabe stops going to work and discovers the oblivion of drink. In a small bar, he asks a man—who identifies himself as an author of “meaningless novels”—to help him spend the small fortune he’s just withdrawn from his savings. In a sequence that anticipates the bacchanals of such later Japanese new-wave directors as Shohei Imamura, Watanabe and the novelist (Yunosuke Ito) visit such pleasure-district outposts as a pachinko parlor, a beer garden, a dance hall, and a strip club. They’re surrounded by lively music, all of it imported, but Watanabe most enjoys tearfully singing a melancholy Japanese ballad from his youth, “Life Is Brief.”

After Toyo locates Watanabe to get his authorization to leave the job she finds crushingly boring, the two become friends. He’s attracted to her liveliness, but she wearies of his interest. When they have a final incongruous meeting at a coffee shop full of young people, Toyo suggests that Watanabe find a goal. He’s suddenly inspired, but Kurosawa, rather than begin an account of the playground crusade, instead cuts to the photo of Watanabe displayed at his wake. The rest of the tale is told as the protagonist’s former co-workers reconstruct it—a process that’s social satire in the form of a drawing-room detective story.

Kurosawa’s humanist outlook may seem a little dowdy today, although his recurring theme—a person’s determination to forge purpose and identity—was always more radical in Japan’s Confucian society than in the more individualist West. Like most of the director’s work, Ikiru has its theatrical moments, which can appear especially broad when the performers wear modern dress rather than period costumes. Yet the film is full of assured cinematic touches. After receiving his diagnosis, for example, Watanabe walks alone through a crowd, his isolation expressed by the silence that becomes obvious only when he almost walks in front of a truck and the sounds of the street suddenly come roaring back. The movie also expresses its themes with shots of clocks and mirrors, dramatic camera positions, and rhymed vistas up and down sets of stairs. (In one scene, the dying Watanabe rushes down while a youthful birthday girl glides up.)

Perhaps most remarkable is the sense of discomfort. Watanabe’s inner anguish, both physical and spiritual, can be read on his face, and the uneasiness he causes in others is palpable. The novelist and the wake attendees hail Watanabe’s spirit, but in many scenes people recoil from him: Clubgoers shrink away as he sings “Life Is Brief”; Toyo winces when he extols her vitality. At the wake, the mourners cringe when the women who sought the playground weepingly arrive to pay their respects. Ultimately, Watanabe escapes people’s expectations of him, and he leaves a legacy. But the bureaucratic routine in his office doesn’t change. Like the wandering samurai for whom Kurosawa is best known, Ikiru’s protagonist is at once a heroic outsider and a profound inconvenience.

The stakes might seem greater in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfevres, made five years before Ikiru. After all, someone is killed early in the film, which predates the Clouzot thrillers that are best known in the United States, Diabolique and The Wages of Fear. But the victim is a louse, the protagonists are the suspected killers, and the murder mystery turns out to be a cheat. The movie is really a social comedy, less interested in homicide than in the respective cultures of the music halls of working-class Menilmontant (where Clouzot got his start in showbiz) and Paris’ police headquarters, then located on the street that provides the film’s name.

Clouzot and co-writer Jean Ferry quickly introduce the central couple, an ambitious (and, for the time, salacious) singer who calls herself Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair, Clouzot’s mistress) and her pianist husband, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier, father of director Bertrand). Jenny has a hip-swiveling act, and her friends include lesbian photographer Dora Monnier (Simone Renant), who sometimes shoots nude starlets for rich industrialist Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin). Suggesting that he can help her career, Brignon begins to court Jenny, firing Maurice’s jealousy. One night, when Jenny claims she’s going to visit her sick grandmother, Maurice is sure she’s headed for Brignon’s mansion on the other side of town. He gets a pistol, and having taken pains to establish an alibi at the Eden Theater, heads to Brignon’s place. When he arrives, the dirty old man is already dead.

Enter detective Lt. Antoine (authoritative stage veteran Louis Jouvet), the film’s star attraction, if not its star. Both a master crime-solver and a droll commentator, Antoine begins to sort things out. There are at least three potential culprits, because Jenny, Maurice, and Dora all went to Brignon’s house on the night he died. As Maurice’s alibi unravels, he seems to become the prime suspect. But the viewer has already seen what happened when Maurice visited Brignon, and knows that he is not guilty.

Quai des Orfevres was Clouzot’s first film after being essentially blacklisted for working for a German-financed French company, Continental Films, during World War II, and it includes many references to the director’s career and daily existence in postwar Paris. The dialogue mentions real crimes, actual places, and specific details of food and alcohol rationing. In appearance, the movie is a classic black-and-white film noir, with dim, smoky interiors and dark, wet streets dappled with pools of light. Clouzot, who was known for pushing and even abusing actors, insisted on realism: When Maurice gets a blood transfusion, there’s no question that the needle is truly penetrating his skin. Yet there’s much absurdity and irony as well, from performing-dog acts to the Christmas Eve bells that ring during Maurice’s most despairing moment. Quai des Orfevres is a homicide drama in which the murder proves dull, but the texture of life is riveting. CP