Few people know Kurosawa’s dark, contemporary, and suspenseful tale of corruption and revenge—perhaps because it was made around the same time as his three lightest and most entertaining sword-and-kimono flicks. Commercially speaking, it can’t stand up to its predecessor, The Hidden Fortress, or the two action comedies that would follow it, Yojimbo and Sanjuro. But that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked.
I first saw The Bad Sleep Well at the Castro several years ago. I saw it one other time—a satellite TV broadcast—before renting and watching the DVD last night as part of my project to see all available Kurosawa films in chronological order.
Even though I had seen this film twice before, and knew how it ended, it was still edge-on-the-seat suspenseful. But it wasn’t Hitchcock-like suspense, with the comfort of knowing that everything will turn out OK. Kurosawa doesn’t guarantee happy endings.
Chronologically speaking, this is a return to an old form. It was Kurosawa’s first modern-dress film in five years, and his first film noir in ten. In fact, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and The Bad Sleep Well can be viewed as his post-war noir trilogy.
The plot concerns a large, successful, and thoroughly corrupt corporation, and a young man (Toshiro Mifune) out to destroy it from the inside. It begins with his wedding to the president’s crippled daughter—an act that everyone reads as blind ambition (the engagement won him a job as the president’s personal secretary). But the real motive is revenge. Kurosawa reveals the reasons for and depth of that revenge slowly.
Thematically, if not stylistically, The Bad Sleep Well similar to the upcoming Yojimbo. Both look at the seamy place where capitalism and organized crime meet. And in both Mifune extracts vengeance through his clever manipulation of the villains’ fears and flaws. But while Yojimbo is a black comedy with a make-believe happy ending, The Bad Sleep Well is merely black.
In some ways, it looks forward to his later, bleaker work, like Ran. Good deeds not only punish those who do them; they’re also futile. Things aren’t black and white, here. The corrupt and murderous company president is also a loving and gentle father. And the righteous protagonist has a cruel streak that’s frightening.
My favorite Kurosawa actor, Takashi Shimura, gets his first juicy part since Record of a Living Being. It’s a supporting role, but it’s better than the brief cameos he usually got at this point in Kurosawa’s career. He plays one of the main corporate criminals—his first villain role for Kuroawa since No Regrets for Our Youth.
Next up: Yojimbo.