Thursday, August 23, 2007

Underworld Beauty

For a film lover, there’s not much that can top the pleasure of seeing something that you know nothing about, and having it just blow your doors off. Such was the case with Underworld Beauty, my first dabble in the work of the Japanese master Seijun Suzuki. This film has got a lot of things I love – Cool, tough men, sexy tough women, and a bit of depravity thrown in for good measure. Simply put, this is a great film.

We first meet Miyamoto as he walks down a deserted sewer, dislodges a brick from the wall and removes something from the other side – A gun and a small bag of diamonds. This opening sequence nicely introduces the hard-as-nails underground world of UB, and does so without a single word of dialogue. We can guess that Miyamoto is a guy who has just gotten out of prison and is recovering his hidden loot, but an early meeting with a crime boss puts an unexpected spin on things. It turns out that Miyamoto wants to sell the diamonds in order to help out his old partner Mihara, who lost a leg in the job that sent Miyamoto to prison.

The rooftop meeting to sell the jewels goes bad when several masked men interrupt it. Rather than give up the diamonds that he paid such a price to obtain, Mihara swallows them and leaps off the building to his death. The bad guys all have a dilemma now: Their diamonds are in the stomach of a dead man, and the body is in the hands of the law.

This, folks, is where the story takes a twist towards the macabre. We have already briefly met the dead man’s younger sister Oyane, and her artist boyfriend Arita. These two know where the diamonds are, and during a last viewing of Mihara’s body, Arita distracts his girlfriend long enough to recover the stones from inside the dead body.

One thing that strikes you as you watch this film is the America-fied air that it gives off. The story, its B&W, wide-screen presentation, and jazzy score could have been lifted wholesale from some of the great American noirs, like Pick-up on South Street or Kiss Me Deadly. The “hero” Miyamoto with his leather jacket and black fedora looks much more like a North American construct than any traditional kind of yakuza. This film walks in the tough-guy footprints laid down by people like Sam Fuller.

I put hero in quotes above because, although Miyamoto is the hero in the strictest sense of the word, he is far from a virtuous knight errant. There’s no suggestion that he didn’t deserve to be in prison, and throughout the film he carries himself with the air of someone who is not to be messed with. There’s a scene early on where he walks into a raucous nightclub, and everything comes to an abrupt halt. His quest to recover the jewels and his efforts to protect Oyane after her brother’s death are tied to what he likely sees as a duty to his former partner, and nothing more.

Arita now seems to have everything wrapped up, because no one else knows that he has the diamonds, everyone believing that they were cremated along with Mihara. It all goes up in smoke, however, when Miyamoto visits and intercepts a damning telephone call. Miyamoto thus recovers the diamonds and sets UB’s marvelous endgame into motion. On one side Miyamoto with the diamonds, and on the other side the crime syndicate who are holding Oyane hostage.

Underworld Beauty is a marvelous-looking Noir, and never more so than in its finale, when Miyamoto goes to the mansion of the head bad guy to settle things up. The final showdown is lengthy and makes good use of the house with its shadowy hallways and Western-style look. Miyamoto and Oyane are pinned in a corner of a dark, steamy basement, and work together frantically to burrow their way out through a coal chute. It’s a terrific set piece, shot through with soot, sweat, and gunpowder. Rescuing a girl never looked like such hard work before.

A final note – My profuse thanks to Tom Sutpen (The David Ortiz of film bloggage) for providing me with a copy of this little jewel.


Kimberly Lindbergs said...

This is one of my favorite Suzuki films, but I love just about everything he did between 1958-1968. He had an amazing 10 year period that has rarely been equaled.

Jeff Duncanson said...

Thanks for dropping by, Kimberley. Yeah, In reading a bit of background on Suzuki, I am now really pumped to see the stuff in the period you mention.