The Bad Sleep Well (1960) | The Criterion Collection
The Bad Sleep Well – 1960

Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Hideo Oguni, Eijirō Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa, Ryūzō Kikushima, Shinobu Hashimoto
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyōko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Takashi Shimura, Kō Nishimura, Takeshi Katō, Kamatari Fujiwara

In the peak of his career, it feels like Akira Kurosawa retains the ability to tell just about any story and make it interesting. The Bad Sleep Well finds Kurosawa exploring more Shakespearan themes, this time Hamlet, along with a certain daylight noir.

Opening with the marriage of an up and coming assistant (Mifune) to the invalid daughter (Kagawa) of a company executive Iwabuchi (Mori). There is press and police at the wedding and there is a special cake with a rose strategically placed. Immediately businessmen within the Dairyu Construction Company and their government-funded Public Corporation partner have sweat upon their brow.

Following the wedding, more steps are taken by a mysterious presence that recall the suicide of a former Assistant Chief to Iwabuchi. The hint of scandal becomes more obviously proof of actual wrongdoings.

As the newlywed assistant, Mifune is excellent at portraying a mixture of emotions tied to the events. His passion mixed with anger manifests into a type of confusion that would be difficult to express in a less experienced actor. His skill is near top form here.

The best performance of the film is Fujiwara as Wada. He is a mixture of desperation, grief and absolutely lacking in guile. He is truly a man who went over the edge and is on his way back. I have seen him in a few films by now. He’s always good. Here, he outdoes himself.

The best thing the film has going for it is an acting ensemble on top of their game. If there is a bad performance, I missed it. Shimura is perfect as a slimy soldier for the bad guys. The way he tracks down the saboteur is a masterclass in acting. Mori is absolutely despicable. His ability to compartmentalize the appearance of feelings into self-preservation at all costs allows Kurosawa to stick the landing in a wobbly last act.

The only thing one can do in a film by Kurosawa is to start at perfect and deduct points for the tiniest of infractions. In this case, the powerful first three acts is only occasionally put off by the score that rambles into wackiness. It may be a cultural thing, but when the dialogue is at its tensest and the soundtrack feels like something from The Marx Brothers it throws this viewer off track. The last act is hampered in its climax. The conclusion’s need for an intricate explanation in a state of hysteria doesn’t work as well until we see Mori bring it home.

Kurosawa explores the picture of the public-private partnership like it is a labyrinth of evil. If one is not doing the swindling, they are either the patsy or the swindled or both. The Bad Sleep Well sees its heroes fighting the crooked businessmen from the ruins of a munition factory left over from World War II. It feels like a strong statement of the state of post-war Japan, but it could easily just be a master utilizing all of the tools available. His gifts are enough that one has to believe anything is possible.

Like anything Kurosawa does by now, it’s completely worthwhile and a keeper for the memory book. No one has better control of the images one sees through lighting, angles and dialogue. He controls the mood of the viewer at his whim. It’s hard to imagine a better film maker from his time.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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