Commonly the construction of a compelling narrative utilizes a “signposting” device in order to draw-in or hook the audience. One signposting technique entails offering a glimpse of the difficulties a character will encounter in their forthcoming narrative. In French Connection II (1975), “Popeye” Doyle’s fish out of water status is alluded to in the first few scenes after his arrival in Marseilles. As this is a sequel, and in its narrative style character-driven rather than action-driven, the foregrounding of the ensuring difficulties overtly allude to the first film’s story. On the streets of New York, Doyle understands the language, culture and customs of the people he encountered on the streets. However, in Marseilles he doesn’t speak the language, nor understand the way things are done.
In French Connection (1971) Doyle, shaking a club down, drags a suspect violently through the bar into the toilets. The suspect is in fact an undercover cop and the display performed to ensure the verisimilitude of the undercover cop’s cover. This elaborate scene indicates the knowledge and savvy Doyle, and his fellow agents, have in breaching the inner-ring of criminal associations. This scene, and Doyle’s general street smarts, is alluded to in French Connection IIbut inverted to communicate that Doyle is currently out of his depth and, in the upcoming narrative, will have to learn fast to adapt to the surrounding culture – So that he can succeed in his mission in bringing back Alain Charnier (Frog One) to American shores and American justice.
The most important early contrasting scene, which alludes to both Doyle’s former street smarts and current cultural alienation, comes after an explosion. The suspect, who easily evades the French police, is chased after frantically by Doyle. The foot chase ends with Doyle catching up to the suspect and attempting to wrestle him to the ground. However, the suspect, and the reason why the French police made no real effort to apprehend him, is a undercover police officer. Doyle’s chase exposes the undercover police officer to a criminal boss and the undercover police officer is killed. This scene comes very close to the beginning, similar to the contrasting one in French Connection, and is utilized to indicate how Doyle is currently out of his depth, it also facilitates and signposts the forthcoming narratives direction – that of Doyle’s growth and adaptation to Marseilles’ cultural climate in order to finally bring down Charnier.
Action driven narrative is central to most films. The first thing that tends to happen to a film script is that the dialogue is reduced significantly. Film primarily is a visual medium and therefore actions automatically replace speech when something of significance has to happen. The essential character traits of a film’s protagonist is communicated and connected to the “agency” they have. Agency, that is; the ability the protagonist seems to have in controlling, shaping or driving action forward. As the protagonist does this they ‘reveal who they are in terms of their motives, their strength, weakness, trustworthiness, capacity to love, hate, cherish, adore, deplore, and so on. By their actions do we know them’. (1.) In other words actions are louder than words in communicating character; it is not what a character says but does that determines the reception and understanding of their character. In Man On Fire (2004) the protagonist Creasy’s actions and paternal relationship with Pita indicates his capacity to feel – as contrary to his own perceptions concerning himself. And his morality and strength of character is communicated by his attempts to revenge the kidnapping and assumed death of Pita. The action shows Creasy’s calloused heart warm up and ultimately catch on fire as he is unable to prevent Pita’s kidnapping. Pita teaches Creasy that it is alright to live again and her kidnapping pushes him over the edge into spiralling vortex of revenge and retribution. The films narrative is centred around the emotional journey of Creasy and his actions, and the action sequences, are that which communicates this journey – especially as he remains quite tight lipped throughout the film.
(1.) H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction To Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2006), p. 124.
In this article I will concentrate on the traditional Japanese style that the film retains amd the stylistic influence the western genre had on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. However it should be noted like Stray Dog the Film Noir genre influenced Yojimbo and the film directly alludes to The Glass Key (1942) – particularly the capture and torture scene. A close-analysis of the links between Yojimbo, The Glass Key, and Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest would require a large study in itself.
The introduction to the protagonist contains a homage to the wide-open vistas of director John Ford’s westerns. Kurosawa was reputed to be an avid fan of Ford’s use of open spaces as well as his framing device of filming through windows and door frames in a town or domestic scene. Kurosawa uses the panoramic to highlight how lost the protagonist is in the wilderness, and how isolated he is from domesticity and home. As the protagonist is drinking water we see a domestic scene filmed in the style of Ford. Like Ethan in The Searchers our nameless protagonist can only peer into domesticity, symbolised by us seeing him through a door frame.
Another aspect of the western that Yojimbo alludes to is the shoot-out or face-off. The formal style of the western influences Kurosawa as the shoot-out is a way of communicating the crucible of emotions that come before violent action. The style of the shoot-out communicates both the spatial environment but also the intense emotional drama that is about to unfold. The shoot-out is also a romantic way of capturing combat. Recent historical evidence shows that most fighting in the American west were ambushes or ‘bushwhacks’. To be shot in the back was more common than being shot facing one’s enemy. With the medicine available at the time it is understandable, however in light of these facts it is evident that the romantic vision of the gunfight was used both as a tool in which he creates suspense and spectacle but also to imbue violent, cruel individuals with a sense of honour and respectability.
Yojimbo is a film that both refers to the Japanese genre of ‘Jidai-geki’ a historical genre which ‘primarily refers to films set in the latter part of the Tokugawa era, from the early 1600’s to 1867’ and to the similar western genre. Jidai-geki films tend to ‘centre on swordsmen of fictional, legendary, or actual historical origin’ much like the western genre centres around a gunfighter and just like the westerns’ centrepiece of the violent ‘shoot-out and saloon fight’ the Jidai-geki has a comparative centrepiece of ‘violent, realistic sword fighting scenes’. In Yojimbo‘s narrative Kurosawa continuously alludes to the archetype Jidai-geki characters. Yojimbo‘s protagonist is the classical masterless samurai or Ronin. A. J. Anderson explains that the Ronin having ‘lost the lords to whom they owed hereditary allegiance… wander from place to place, seeking refuge, employment, or revenge’. The central conflict of Yojimbo‘s protagonist is also traditionally Jidai-geki in style. Rather than the central conflict springing from the more traditional external moral conflict between good and bad forces, such as found in many westerns, Yojimbo‘s protagonist’s central conflict is internal rather than external. A conflict between what he wants and what he feels he must do; a conflict between duty or honour and personal gain or desires. When we first meet the central protagonist he wonders aimlessly and throws a stick in the air in order to gain direction. His stay in the town is dictated by satisfying personal desires like hunger and gaining personal wealth. However the longer he stays the more he feels a personal honour and duty in cleaning up the town by forcing the two ‘gambler’ gangs to destroy each other. He stays to help the towns people who aren’t involved in the two gang’s conflict. The narrative moves along first as he attempts to settle an internal battle between his desires and duty, and then to the consequences of his decision. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo follows the Jidai-geki genre narrative structure precisely. Kurosawa uses this traditional Japanese genre because he wishes to analyse contemporary Japan and its changing position concerning personal gain and social duty. This social analysis through genre is exactly like the dialogue America has with its past and present through the western. As Douglas Pye explained, the western is a ‘ confluence of romantic narrative and archetypal imagery modified and localized by recent… experience ‘. Essentially the western, and Jidai-geki, is a mixture of a romanticised past, generic characters and imagery which is constantly being re-evaluated with each passing generation of films and film-makers. The construction of character and central conflicts in the western and Jidai-geki are both national in character and hold significant divergences from each other, however they both serve the same function, one of social critique and historical romanticising.
Focalization is the perspective through which a narrative is presented. The style of focalization produces different styles of narrative and different conceptions of character. Hitchcock’s use of focalization ensured a sense of suspense and drama was produced. Hitchcock explained that a ‘Superior range of knowledge creates suspense [the essence of drama] because we can anticipate effects that the character cannot.’1 Essentially this is dramatic irony. Suspense and drama is produced when the audience knows the outcome or some alternative knowledge concerning the action on the screen. The perspective through which narrative is presented is important in the production of this superior range of knowledge. In the film Psycho (1960) when Lila is upstairs searching we are allowed the knowledge that Bates is downstairs. Lila doesn’t know this but we do. We hold our breath hoping that Lila gets out in time and every slow movement that Lila makes intensifies this panic. Hitchcock uses a objective, distant perspective to produce suspense and drama.
The range of knowledge and information we receive concerning that which affects the characters of a film is controlled by the type of narration and the style of focalization. In The Big Sleep (1946) we are given a fixed viewing position. An objective and closed-off focus on the protagonist Marlowe. We don’t get the same form of suspense as in Hitchcock’s Psycho because we never see more than Marlowe. We also rarely let into his thoughts or rationalizations. This can be explained by the attempt to make the film and Marlowe ‘more mysterious …[and interesting because] we do not know his inferences and deductions before he reveals them at the end.’2 However I personally believe this is the incorrect style for the film. I would assert that the The Big Sleep‘s style is incorrect because Chandler’s book and his Marlowe is interesting because of his continuously rationalizing and editorializing narrative.
Another similar film but one with a different style to The Big Sleep is Double Indemnity (1944). In this film we are given both the objective distance of The Big Sleep and a subjective style of focalization. We are also allowed the position of knowledge that Hitchcock utilized in Psycho. The beginning of the film we see a stumbling shot Walter Neff, we are given important information concerning his fate. The film proceeds by telling us how Neff comes to be shot through the technique of analepsis (flashback). What this does is create a marked reading of the events that follow. Our understanding of the chain of events that led to Neff’s destruction are coloured by our privileged position of knowledge. Although I dislike the production of The Big Sleep and its style of focalization it is not because the technique is flawed but rather because the style of the original text, Chandler’s novel, would lead itself to be more subjective and to contain the same style of rationalizing focalizer or voice of the novel.
1David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990), p. 66.
2David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, p. 67.