Plot: What’s it about?
Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) is a young detective in the middle of a bad day, but the day is about to get even worse. As he traveled on a bus, a criminal picked his pocket and stole his gun, which is the ultimate humiliation for a police officer. This event sends him off the deep end, as he turns into an emotional wreck, hell bent on getting back his gun. He wants to be the one to capture the criminal too, so he can regain some of his honor. But his emotions take a turn for the worse when he learns what the criminal has done with his gun, a series of terrible crimes. Someone has used his weapon in a chain of robberies, some of which ended in murders. This news sends Murakami into a deep depression, though he is still determined to collar the criminal involved. He is partnered with Sato (Takashi Shimura), a cool and controlled veteran officer who is a stark contrast to Murakami, though he is a good choice to join the rookie detective. Murakami begins to learn a lot from Sato, such as how to handle intense situations without losing control. Even when asking the same questions, Sato is able to get answers, while Murakami is given the cold shoulder. The two venture through the underworld, blazing a path toward the wanted man. But who is the criminal who stole the gun and when they find him, will he be the monster they expect?
This was Akira Kurosawa’s ninth feature film, but it was one of his first breakthrough hits, one of numerous great films to follow. The premise is simple enough, but Kurosawa directs with such depth that the material shines. He sought to create a detective thriller in the vein of George Simeon, an author of acclaimed novels. While he fails to capture the kind of atmosphere Simeon was famous for, Kurosawa creates his own effective take on the genre. You can also influence from American film noir cinema, but again, Kurosawa retains an original vision. Stray Dog runs over two hours in duration, but minimal time is wasted and the excellent direction ensures that we’re never bored. I do think some scenes could be tightened up a little, but the alterations would be minor and in the end, the film works quite well as it is. Toshiro Mifune (High and Low, Yojimbo) starred in numerous Kurosawa pictures and as usual, he is in fine form in Stray Dog. Mifune isn’t as refined or intense as he would become later in his career, but his performance is still remarkable. I found Stray Dog to be a terrific movie, as it provides entertainment on the most basic level, but offers depth and technical skill that would impress even the most critical viewer. Criterion’s edition is the best offering I’ve seen, so fans will want to grab this new version.
Video: How does it look?
Stray Dog is presented in full frame, as intended. I have seen dozens of different releases for this movie, but none have been that impressive. The movie was released in 1949, so time has taken a toll on the materials. I am surprised no one has undertaken a full restoration, but as it stands, the movie looks mediocre at best. This version is the best treatment I’ve seen, with enhanced resolution and perhaps a cleaner source print. But the image is still soft and the print is battered at times, so this is not up to Criterion’s usual standards. The brighter images look better, as the darker ones tend to be overly dark and lose subtle details. I’m critical of the visuals only because of Criterion’s track record, so don’t think I am totally disappointed. I do wish a complete overhaul were available, but until then, this is the best transfer I’ve seen for this picture.
Audio: How does it sound?
This disc features the original Japanese mono track and Criterion has included optional English subtitles, in case you don’t speak that language. The audio fares better than the video to be sure, but still comes a little short of what I expected. You can’t expect the world from a 1949 mono track of course, but the harshness seems a little too high with this track at times. That might be a minor quibble, but I still think it’s worth a mention. Other than that, this is one of the better mono tracks I’ve heard from this time, with crisp vocals and no signs of distortion I could detect. It’s not perfect, but it does sound very good.
Supplements: What are the extras?
An audio commentary is up first, as author Stephen Prince lends his expertise in a brisk, but informative session. Prince talks at length about Kurosawa and the film’s production, but he also covers the real life events in Japan at the time. This offers some perspective on some of Kurosawa’s decisions, which enhances the experience a little. A half hour featurette rounds out the extras, but this no fluff piece, not even close. The featurette has a lot of great new interviews, which yield a wealth of behind the scenes insights.