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A colorful classic and a topless starlet “won” Cannes in 1954

Palme ThursdayPalme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

Gate Of Hell (1954)

One of the grand paradoxes of the Cannes Film Festival is that it seems to exist at the nexus of high and low culture. While plenty flock to the annual event for two weeks of tough and serious cinema, others go simply to bask in the glow of celebrity—a limelight generated by the flash of tabloid cameras and the summer sunlight refracting off of designer attire. This is why a Google search for a particular year at Cannes yields as many pictures of decked-out stars (usually tagged with the word “glamour”) as it does film titles. For many, the history of the festival is just a series of red carpets and photo ops.


The cognitive dissonance of it all seemed to get to André Bazin. In 1955, the great French film critic wrote an essay about Cannes for the magazine he co-founded, that most seminal of cinephile journals, Cahiers Du Cinéma. Of all the grueling daily rituals he half-jokingly laments in “The Festival Viewed As A Religious Order,” perhaps the most frivolous are the combination beach party/publicity functions, where paparazzi scramble to get shots of the “traditional striptease by the starlet of the year standing on the rocks.” This particular custom was spawned in part by Brigitte Bardot’s inaugural, bikinied appearance at Cannes in 1953. But disrobing actresses arguably didn’t become a fixture of the festival until the following year, when Simone Silva got banned for posing topless next to Robert Mitchum—a spectacle that caused a pile-up of frantic, injured photographers.

Bazin actually served on the jury in 1954, which helps explain some of the tongue-in-cheek exasperation he expressed in print a year later. After all, here he was, consuming hours upon hours of cinema from all around the globe, and all anyone could talk about was some half-dressed ingénue. Some six decades later, Cannes ’54 is still perhaps best remembered for Silva’s publicity stunt. But what of the movies? A whopping 43 films appeared in competition that year, but a large number of them have fallen into obscurity, or at least remain unavailable (and largely unseen) in the United States.


For years, that was true even of the top prizewinner, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s riveting melodrama Gate Of Hell. The jury—a distinguished group that included not just Bazin, but also Jean Cocteau (who served as president) and lone non-French member Luis Buñuel—awarded the film the Grand Prix, one year before the festival started handing out the Palme D’Or instead. The first Japanese film to win Cannes, Gate Of Hell would go on to become an international sensation, and to score two Academy Awards—one for costume design in a color film, another for Best Foreign Language film. It then basically fell off the map, critically speaking, for about half a century. As Stephen Prince explains in the essay that accompanies Criterion’s recent DVD/Blu-ray release, a fading of the movie’s exquisite colors helped ease it into the “dustbin of history.” Only in 2011, when a full restoration was performed, did this forgotten classic begin to reclaim the interest of cinephiles.

Watching the film today, it’s easy to see how a literal loss of luster could have doomed it to (temporary) footnote status. One of Japan’s earliest color productions—and almost certainly the first color film to make it out of the country and onto foreign screens—Gate Of Hell is chiefly a feast for the eyes. To see the movie in a degraded state, without its full range of fiery oranges and verdant greens and bold blues, would have been to not really see it at all. Its reputation rests on its palette, so it’s not shocking that the less-than-pristine prints that made the rounds for decades failed to inspire much super-fandom.


Part of a general global discovery of Japanese cinema in the early ’50s, Kinugasa’s international breakthrough was less narratively radical than the breakthrough that preceded it. Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which won Venice and its own Academy Award a few years earlier, used unreliable narrators to divide its plot into competing layers of information and meditate on the unknowable nature of truth. (It’s one of the most influential “gimmicks” in the history of the movies, inspiring cross-medium variations on the he-said/she-said scenario.) Based on a well-known play by Kan Kikuchi, Gate Of Hell is, by contrast, much more straightforward. It’s also closer to what some would come to think of, however reductively, as the prototypical Japanese film: a period piece (or jidaigeki film) that takes place during the onset of the feudal era, featuring a samurai and a long-suffering maiden, and offering a simultaneously awestruck and critical portrait of history.

Set in 1160, during a period of civil unrest, the film commences with a flurry of action, an uprising in progress. An emperor has gone away on family business, leaving his kingdom—and palace—vulnerable to rebel forces. As the palace guard mounts a defense and plots an escape for the royal family, a loyal samurai, Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), escorts a lady-in-waiting, Kesa (Machiko Kyō), into the surrounding woods; she has agreed to play decoy empress, while he has agreed to protect her. This rollicking opening passage immediately serves as a showcase for the film’s spectrum of vibrant colors, as well as Kinugasa’s muscular depiction of swordplay.

It’s also a skillful mislead. After what amounts to an action-packed prologue, Gate Of Hell narrows its focus and settles into its true story, a kind of postwar battle of wills. Having honorably resisted throughout the coup, which required that he put down his own mutinous brother, Morito is granted a reward—“no request is too big,” he’s essentially told—from the grateful Lord Kiyomori (Koreya Senda). Trouble is, Morito does ask for something he can’t have: He wants to make Kesa his bride, but she’s already married to a member of the imperial guard, Wataru (Isao Yamagata). The samurai will not take no for an answer, however. He’s sacrificed much for his unbending loyalty, and a combination of entitlement and romantic obsession drives his pursuit of Kesa, whose gratitude to the warrior curdles into hatred as he attempts to nudge her beloved husband out of the picture.


Kinugasa performs more than just a narrative switcheroo, then. The early scenes create a rousing vision of a medieval land, warming the audience to an ostensibly noble hero, only to reveal his true, corrupt nature as the plot progresses. (As played by a suitably intense Hasegawa, Morito is the human embodiment of brutish military might—a man who assumes he can take anything by force, even the affections of a happily married woman.) That critique seeps into the film’s entire vision of ancient Japan, a place where weak men hide behind the decorous appearance of strength. Few characters emerge unscathed. Not Kiyomori, who amusedly entertains the demands of the mad samurai, like a God toying with the lives of mortals for mere sport. And not Wataru, either, who’s so laid back about the whole situation—so confident in his claim over his wife—that he fails to realize the lengths both Morito and Kesa will go to. His blasé attitude plays its own role in the impending tragedy.

The central point—that the rigid codes of this bygone era were a smoke screen for moral decay—is expressed most potently through Kinugasa’s justly celebrated use of color. The director shot Gate Of Hell on the then-brand-new Eastman film stock, and is said to have sent two representatives from the Daiei studio to Hollywood to study color processing techniques. The payoff is the transformation of the screen into a painter’s canvas: Every costume, every on-screen object, bursts with primary color. And the indoor scenes, of chambers framed by columns, gain a bewitching glow. But the film doesn’t just “look pretty”; its aesthetic serves a stealth function. Far from simply visualizing the heightened emotions of the characters, the vibrant colors also evoke a romanticized past—the glorious idea of ancient Japan. So it’s no accident that, by the sobering finale, Kinugasa has flooded the frame with darker, murkier shades of blue. As the characters show their true colors, so too does the world containing them.


The climax, by the way, is magnificent—a suspenseful parting passage in which Kesa makes a tough and crucial decision, and the film seems to slow time to live in her headspace. Kyō—a principle star of the Japanese film boom who also appeared in Rashomon and another festival favorite that did well in the West, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu—lends these final moments a poignant, silent agony. They’re also beautifully staged, with Hasegawa emerging from the darkness like the angel of death.


Kinugasa, who got his start playing women as an Onnagata, opposed the initial casting of actual actresses in Japanese cinema, if only because it cost him his livelihood. (He moved quickly into directing, eventually making what many consider to be his masterpiece, the 1926 avant-garde milestone A Page Of Madness.) But Gate Of Hell demonstrates that he not only got over that objection, but flourished when collaborating with strong actresses. It also suggests that the filmmaker possessed an empathy for the opposite sex, and a general distrust of traditional masculine codes. The film ends up working, in hindsight, as a lament for the women of this dark age—bartered like property, torn between proud and foolish men, their fates often decided by others. To that end, it’s perversely appropriate that it won Cannes the same year that the festival lost its mind at the sight of a bathing beauty. On-screen and off, Cannes ’54 was all about the male gaze, and the women—both complicit and not—on which it lingered.

Did it deserve to win? Honestly, it’s tough to say. As mentioned before, much of the competition slate of ’54 is hard to track down these days. The films that aren’t—most of them of American and British descent—are less artful, less accomplished, than Gate Of Hell. One of the very first movies shot in CinemaScope, Beneath The 12-Mile Reef has underwater photography nearly as breathtaking as the colors in the Kinugasa picture, not to mention a terrific Bernard Herrmann score and a very young Robert Wagner. But its narrative, a star-crossed love story set against the backdrop of the Florida sponge diving community, is no great shakes. Another CinemaScope epic, Richard Thorpe’s Knights Of The Round Table is a handsome but unremarkable spin on Arthurian legend. Likewise, the Disney nature documentary The Living Desert—a rare non-fiction film wedged into the Cannes lineup—boasts spectacular imagery of Arizona wildlife, but also the same infantile anthropomorphizing tendencies the Mouse House continues to indulge in its animal-kingdom docs. As far as the Hollywood fare went, Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-sweeping WWII soap From Here To Eternity was probably the best in show, though its more sprawling, star-powered take on melodrama is less affecting than Gate Of Hell’s. Really, of the films readily available, only Do Bigha Zamin looks like a worthy competitor. One of the first Bollywood films to win a prize at Cannes, it has the simple, unvarnished power of the Italian neorealist classics.


Next up: Man Of Iron

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