Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: David Fincher’s Mank, about Herman J. Mankiewicz’s work on Citizen Kane, is coming soon to Netflix. Before it drops, check out these earlier films penned by some of Hollywood’s most famous screenwriters.
Sydney Pollack’s directorial style has never inspired an auteur cult. Yet in the violent climax of The Yakuza, it’s hard to think of anything else. As the retired American private eye Harry (Robert Mitchum) and the Japanese ex-gangster Ken (Ken Takakura) fight their way into a mob compound, we are treated to a form of action choreography that hadn’t really been seen in an American film at this point—a clash of shotgun blasts, room dividers, and blades, the odds tracked in god’s-eye-view overhead shots.
This showdown of death drives feels inevitable but also unexpected, given that Pollack spends most of The Yakuza applying restraint to the fatalism of a pulpy and eventually lurid script credited to the screenwriters Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and Robert Towne (Chinatown). To call this a collaboration between these major talents would be inaccurate. It was Schrader’s first produced screenplay, which Towne, the most celebrated script doctor in Hollywood, was brought in to rewrite. Nonetheless, such unlikely pairings define the film.
Among these is the combination of the alcoholic aura of Mitchum (the only ’40s and ’50s star who looked at home in a downbeat ’70s movie) and the stoic presence of Takakura, a staple of the Toei yakuza movies that Schrader and his brother, Leonard, frequented in the theaters of L.A.’s Little Tokyo. Mitchum’s Harry, who was once stationed in Japan as an MP, has returned to rescue the daughter of an old friend, who has been kidnapped by the yakuza. Schrader began his career as a film critic, so it isn’t surprising that the premise is conceived, in academic noir terms, as a post-war story.
The war, however, is a distant memory. While the world of Japanese organized crime was at the time completely unknown to the wider American audience, The Yakuza avoids some of the expected exoticism. The Japan presented here has modernized, and it’s Harry that looks like a relic as he seeks out the assistance of Ken, the brother of Harry’s old flame, Eiko (Keiko Kishi). Ultimately, it’s a story of different morbid codes of honor and unlikely partnerships between tough guys who are basically walking antiques.
Directed by the stolid Pollack with a largely Japanese crew, The Yakuza is awash with the appealing textures of a ’70s American crime film (urban location photography, moody music, actors who don’t look like they act for a living); in stretches, it also looks credibly like a Japanese studio programmer. That it seems to find a common ground between the two in noir—a French coinage that was invented to describe a category of American movies of which Americans were not themselves aware—speaks to the often tricky cultural exchange of movie genres. A major flop in its time, it now feels like a unique artifact of an era that elevated the self-aware auteur but was also in many ways a golden age of idiosyncratic scripts.