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The Criterion Completist – Snow Trail (1947)

March 25, 2012

(Join Matt Streets aka The Criterion Completist on his journey to watch and review every single Criterion release….) 

 

 

written by: Akira Kurisawa and Senkichi Taniguchi

produced by: Toho

directed by: Senkichi Taniguchi

rating: unrated

runtime: 89 min. 

release date: August 5, 1947

available on: Hulu Plus

 

One of these mysterious Hulu Plus Criterion releases is the little-known Japanese adventure film “Snow Trail”, most notable as being the first starring role for Toshiro Mifune. The story follows the fate of three bank robbers (Mifune, Takishi Shimura, and Yoshio Kosugi) on the run from the police, who hide out high up in the snowy Japanese Alps in a remote lodge inhabited by an old man, his granddaughter and an intrepid mountaineer (Akitake Kono) trapped there by a recent blizzard.  They don’t know that the men are criminals, and a tense standoff starts to unfold.  If this plot feels familiar, that’s because it’s been used dozens of times before by Hollywood, most famously in “The Desperate Hours” and the terrible remake.

Despite the basic premise, there is a lot to like about this film.  Fans of Mifune should definitely add this to their lists.  His performance as the leader of the gang is gripping throughout, and the tension builds as he struggles to control his volatile temper with a taut, steely-eyed gaze.  People more familiar with his later work will be astonished at how young he looks here – like a wiry, fierce Clint Eastwood in his early years.  It was around this time that he caught the attention of screenwriter Akira Kurosawa, and it’s easy to see why he wanted this intense young actor to star in his later samurai epics.

Other highlights include: a very tense and well-shot avalanche scene, the utterly charming performance of the young granddaughter Haruko (Setsuko Wakayama), and a haunting melancholy score by composer Akira Ifukube (who went on to write the famous theme for “Godzilla”), that perfectly captures the isolation, loneliness and beauty of these snow-covered mountains.  Overall, I would recommend this as an unusual Japanese crime/adventure quickie for Mifune and Kurosawa completists and for fans of more obscure Japanese cinema, though with a short running time and a brisk, exciting plot, anyone would be able to enjoy this fine film.

“Snow Trail” has not been officially released on DVD yet, but it is clear need of the full Criterion treatment.  I would love some extras regarding filming in such a remote, mountainous location.  Many of the mountain shots and action scenes set high up in the peaks seem very dangerous and complex for a movie shot in the late 1940s, and a behind the scenes feature would be very welcome.  Visually, some clean-up is required, as many scenes are scratchy, and a ten-second sequence towards the end is almost completely disintegrated.  Also, the sound is in dire need of a digital overhaul, to clear up the transfer pops and to equalize this gorgeous score, which seems mixed way too high.  Now, because this is a relatively obscure film, I’m not sure how many prints even exist, but hopefully some work can be done to restore it.

 

 

RATING: ***

 

 

Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.

 

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Matthew Gramitt permalink
    April 10, 2012 5:44 pm

    Excellent assessment of this unknown little gem of a film. Just watched it, and am really glad I did!

    The first act wasn’t particularly impressive, but then came the scene where the bank robbers followed the ski tracks to the little lodge. I love that scene! Seeing their responses to the innocence of the young girl calling them in made me sit up in my seat. Then the shot of them walking to the lodge, separated by the ski tracks (snow trail?)…and I was hooked.
    Good vs. evil, man vs. nature, innocence vs. corruption, kindness vs. cruelty.. Honor, redemption, trust, loyalty….so much to think about with this one. All while being so beautifully photographed. What a shame more people don’t know about this one. Hopefully that’s changing!

    “The rope (which) ties one human life to another is not to be touched. All I did was abide by the code.” – love it!

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