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December 20, 2012

Yellow Line

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Osen Chitai
Teruo Ishii - 1960
Beam Entertainment DVD

Some might gripe about the various plot threads being too neatly coincidental, parallel lines that eventually get tied in one neat ending. For myself, Yellow Line is a nifty little thriller that goes in unexpected places visually.

The basic story is of a hitman who's cheated out of his payment. Spotting a woman in a phone booth, he pretends to be with her while being pursued by the Tokyo cops. The hitman more or less kidnaps the woman, Emi, by taking her with him to Kobe, except that she was planning on going there anyways, for a dance gig. The Emi's boyfriend, a reporter, Toshio, thinks there's something fishy about the fly by night company that hired his girlfriend, and talks his boss into checking out their main office, possibly a front for a prostitution ring, which is in Kobe, also home of the hitman's victim.

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Teruo Ishii's narrative is the stuff of B movies. The action mostly seems to take place during a perpetual twilight. I have to assume there was a conscious decision here in the use of the color red. There is a close-up of Emi's shoes, bright red. She "accidentally" kicks one shoe off just before the train to Kobe departs, providing a clue to her whereabouts. Emi stands out with her red dress and hat. There are also bursts of red with flowers and blood.

The other use of color is of the type to raise the eyebrows of a western audience. One of the characters, a prostitute called "The Moor" is the least convincing caucasian in blackface. Only another "Moor", Laurence Olivier as Othello would be strike me as worse, as I kept on expecting him to break out and sing, "Mammy" and other hits from the Al Jolson songbook. There is also a nightclub scene with several Japanese men, also in blackface, part of some kind of jungle number, with Emi as the featured performer. This is the kind of stuff that needs to be accepted with a grain of salt, or maybe a full shaker.

Ishii wouldn't be the only Japanese filmmaker with an interest in French movies. Much of the action takes place in a part of Kobe called "The Casbah", a direct reference to Pepe Le Moko. In this instance, we're in a maze of narrow streets, full of cheap bars, convenient hotels, pimps, prostitutes, and peddlers of various illegal goods. This "Casbah" pointedly caters to gangsters, assorted low-lifes, and foreigners. The French influence also includes a bar called "Mon Ami" and "Printemps". Even when she seems to protest what is going on, Emi seems to be willingly going along with the hitman. It would be like The Thirty-nine Steps without handcuffs, and Madeleine Carroll sticking with Robert Donat out of a sense of fun and adventure. In best film noir tradition, the hitman, who is never named, shows more honor than the guys that set him up.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 20, 2012 08:47 AM