The Yakuza (Pollack, 1974)

Reuniting Robert Mitchum and Richard Jordan the year after an all-time favorite of mine, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza is more than the name might conjure.

The film was written by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne – what a combo! You can feel the “man with troubled past” to come from some of Schrader’s work, and the Japanese-set script looks ahead to his Mishima. For Towne this is the beginning of his great run: The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Yakuza, and Shampoo in a three year span.

I watched The Yakuza after working out a recut of a scene for my own film currently in post. This one – Crooked & Narrow – is the first time I’ve ever tried my hand at an action sequence and it’s made me respect those scenes even more than I already did.

It really strikes me that, everything else aside, if an action scene is understandable then it’s largely successful. Sure, adrenaline, cleverness, and coherence within the greater narrative are important, but a logical action scene is more than half the battle.

The Yakuza has some great action set pieces. Here’s a look – with maybe the most stills I’ve ever included in a post – at part of one of my favorites. But before that, it’s important to examine a quick early section of the film.

Harry Kilmer (Mitchum) returns to Japan to do a dangerous favor for a friend: he must ask his old Yakuza acquaintance Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura) for help in dealing with that Japanese mob. Here, Kilmer and his bodyguard Dusty (Jordan), enter their Kilmer’s friend’s Wheat (Herb Edelman) house in Tokyo for the first time.

Pollack frames a wide shot in the kitchen, and then shows Kilmer walked off frame right:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.54.28 PM

His action continues as the camera pans with him, revealing a staircase in front and then to the left, and a living room area with chairs, couches, and weapons:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.54.38 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.54.52 PM

A cut back to the kitchen to further establish (though it’s already been established) the relation between the two spaces via eyeline-

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.55.01 PM

-then back to the living room, now occupying the full frame:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.55.07 PM

The scene ends as Kilmer takes his jacket, walking away from Dusty. Kilmer walks past the stairs and beyond them, indicating that the exit is that direction.

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.55.50 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.55.59 PM

This is important stuff. The later action scene will be incredibly quickly cut with lots of coverage. Without establishing a sense of geography prior it will be hard to follow and make little sense.

So, on to the later scene. Dusty is alone with Eiko (Keiko Kishi) – Kilmer’s love – and Hanako (Christina Kokubo), daughter. He and Hanako start in the living room. Pollack gives us some important information in this really nicely framed first shot:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.38.26 PM

There’s Eiko in the background, frame left (not only important to where she is, but also as a reminder of the space); a light overhead, and the stairs in the background, all of which will come into play.

He cuts to a close-up of Hanako, and then to her hands as she serves tea. Following that is close-up shot-reverse between she and Dusty:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.38.40 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.38.50 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.38.59 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.39.27 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.39.34 PM

They’re attracted to each other. He’s sitting comfortably; read: he’s distracted and not alert.

A cut to Eiko. That background is meaningful. Perhaps best though is the slow tone that Pollack has established. Separate close-ups keep everyone doing their own thing and in their own world, though the eyeline and subsequent 2-shot between Hanako and Dusty connects them:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.39.42 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.39.55 PM

That 2-shot above is almost Eiko’s POV. It also shows – as does the first shot – the distance between she and the two younger people. This is important because…

The next shots are intruders crashing in behind Eiko:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.40.05 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.40.14 PM

A quick cut to a dual reaction shot:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.40.21 PM

Another quick cut, this time to a new angle. Wheat, upstairs, also reacting. We know from the low angle, and from the previous layout of the space that, since he’s not anywhere else we’ve been shown, that he must be upstairs. Shooting through the railing also helps to situate us:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.40.28 PM

So far a lot of effort has been taken to establish location, distance, and comfort. That’s all important for logic, but also because all are about to change.

A cut to Eiko and her captor, followed by a return to the 2-shot as Dusty pulls his gun, using the couch as cover:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.40.38 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.40.47 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.40.54 PM

The attacker pulls a knife and we get a close-up on Dusty. Decision time. It’s a nicely timed close-up:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.40.59 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.41.07 PM

Shot-reverse establishes more people and Dusty’s thought process:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.41.14 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.41.22 PM

Similarly to how we got that first close-up of Eiko, calm and in her own world, at the beginning of the sequence, we now get a shot of Hanako, her first single from this angle. Both serve to interrupt the rhythm of a shot-reverse, throwing a third party into the mix, and foreshadowing the danger/harm that will come to that person:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.41.29 PM

A release of tension, momentarily. Pollack cuts wider to both main parties. Dusty’s realized he’s defeated:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.41.35 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.42.03 PM

Let’s not forget about Wheat. He stands and looks. It’s a reminder of someone else in the house, but also, as he’s only been lensed twice, stresses his helplessness:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.42.10 PM

A lower angle frame – likely a tilt up from the previous shot on Dusty – as he tosses his gun away:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.42.22 PM

Now we go even wider. Why? The bad guys have control. Tension – at least in the “who’s going to shoot whom” sense – has been relieved. Also, we’re about to get a reminder of the space. Also again, the shot below really emphasizes Eiko’s isolation with her attackers:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.42.29 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.42.45 PM

Closer on Wheat and then back to the bad guys:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.42.53 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.43.02 PM

They throw Eiko frame right – which we know from previous set-ups, to be the direction of the living room – and she joins Hanako. Recognize that fireplace? It’s intentionally framed here to recall the earlier 2-shot of Dusty and Hanako, now used to situate Eiko and Hanako.

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.43.11 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.43.18 PM

A cut to Dusty uses the lamp to indicate he hasn’t moved. We know how close he is to Eiko and Hanako now:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.43.25 PM

One of the villains moves past the stairs. We know that’s the entrance from the earlier scene’s information:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.43.36 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.43.43 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.43.57 PM

Shot-reverse. That lamp is really occupying a lot of the frame. It’s more or less balanced in the reverse by the red globe (which, from a production design standpoint, is itself echoed in the red lamps on the level above)

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.44.09 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.44.15 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.44.24 PM

Now we cut around the established space and coverage. Eiko and Hanako:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.44.32 PM

Dusty (whose eyeline is important):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.44.55 PM

Wheat:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.45.00 PM

Intruder (who mimics Dusty’s eyeline):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.45.08 PM

Now back to Dusty who again looks up and away, drawing his enemy’s eyeline as well:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.45.17 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.45.23 PM

A shot to what they’re looking at:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.45.30 PM

Before we get into the action sequence, I should note that the above shots – since Dusty relinquishes his gun – have slowed in duration considerably. But that changes as Dusty finally justifies the presence of this gigantic hanging light. He pushes it forward:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.45.37 PM

A wide overhead – on-screen for about 1/3 of a second – shows the light swinging right to left. It also re-establishes everyone’s position:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.45.50 PM

The light continues with it’s proper screen-direction (left to right), throwing illumination chaos into the film:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.45.55 PM

A gunshot – we know where that chessboard is from previous setups (right in the midst of the living room, so some of our protagonists are in danger):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.46.04 PM

The light swings back, serving to not only continue its logical path, but also to temporarily white out the frame and give us a little needed disorientation (which will, of course, last only for a second):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.46.11 PM

A slight overhead as an attacker goes down. Where are we? Well he moves right to left. That, plus the stairs and chairs in the background tell me that he’s in the kitchen and has fallen backwards from the living room:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.46.20 PM

A reverse to Dusty, now also on the ground, gun in hand, reaffirms that:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.46.28 PM

Another attacker comes, moving left to right (opposite of how the guy above fell. So: he’s moving towards Dusty). But he falls backwards, which makes sense since, in the last shot of Dusty, he was aiming in this same direction:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.46.36 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.46.43 PM

The lamp still moves, and now our original guy (recognize that red lamp) comes back at Dusty (we’re in basic screen direction between mostly two parties now):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.46.53 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.46.59 PM

Dusty fires to the left. A blade knocks the gun in a tighter insert:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.47.07 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.47.14 PM

The left to right force of the gun spins Dusty’s arm to face frame right. He loses his gun:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.47.31 PM

A wider overhead giving us some idea of where exactly the attacker is (though as indicated, we should already know this from all the work the filmmaker has done to this point):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.47.38 PM

Back to a medium on Dusty. He kicks right to left, sending his attacker moving in that direction, backwards, and onto a familiar-looking couch:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.47.46 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.47.56 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.48.03 PM

New coverage. Really low with Dusty in the foreground. The low angle not only brings in another attacker, but also serves its traditional purpose: it makes that attacker loom dangerously. This is appropriate:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.48.09 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.48.17 PM

Back out to coverage we’ve seen as Dusty is stabbed:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.48.24 PM

Back to this shot, now chilling with a hell of a performance from Jordan:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.48.32 PM

That low angle, now tilted further up to show the stabber:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.48.38 PM

Quickly, we get coverage. Maybe we aren’t sure where we are at first-

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.48.45 PM

-but that changes as Tanaka comes in, grabbing the bicycle from the foot of the steps (okay, that’s close to the entrance/exit of the house):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.48.53 PM

A new angle on Eiko and Hanako. Remember them? Tough job for the editor here to track everyone. Their reaction to Dusty’s death isn’t as important as to Tanaka’s entrance. He’s a major character:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.48.59 PM

Then Kilmer-

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.49.06 PM

Whose position is further established in this over-the-shoulder (OS):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.49.12 PM

It’s worth noting the relative lack of OS shots in here. In part, they aren’t necessary (they’re often used to establish proximity, position, etc). But also there’s a sort of release of tension with this one. We’ve moved wider again to bring these new guys in. We’ll move tighter soon.

Wide again to show Eiko and Hanako. And then wide to show Kilmer on the ground, crawling within the kitchen (see those chairs, hugging frame left) and moving towards the gun and the living room:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.49.20 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.49.26 PM

Back to Tanaka for a great sequence. Bicycle in hand in a full shot he moves frame right:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.49.33 PM

A well-timed wide shows a convergence of action (we should know where Kilmer is amidst all of this):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.49.40 PM

Medium on the bicycle hit:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.49.47 PM

Back to Dusty reaching for the gun:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.49.55 PM

Tanaka turns frame left and shoves with the bike, throwing someone right to left:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.00 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.08 PM

Another wide as he prepares to toss the bike forward and frame right:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.14 PM

That’s made even more relevant when the action is shown in this shot, already established as Kilmer’s location. So it reaffirms everyone (Kilmer close, Tanaka above and frame right, attackers mostly frame left, Eiko and Hanako beyond and frame left-center, Dusty beyond that):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.21 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.27 PM

Wide again, but from an angle with the kitchen at its back. The bike finishes its path. Again, positions (there’s Hanako frame right/back) are told:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.33 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.40 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.47 PM

Kilmer’s made his way into the foreground of the shot-

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.54 PM

-the attacker is hidden behind the couch-

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.50.59 PM

-and Wheat is useless up above. But he’s being tracked. He’s a potential victim, a witness, and a good cutaway for rhythmic purposes:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.51.05 PM

Kilmer fires frame right-

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.51.12 PM

-and there’s a back and forth of gunfire. We’re now settling into two separate one-on-ones:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.51.19 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.51.25 PM

Here’s the other one. Tanaka and his guy. Notice how Tanaka and Kilmer are both frame left, moving frame right, while their attackers are mostly right to left. Tanaka tackles his guy-

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.51.37 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.51.45 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.51.50 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.51.56 PM

Wheat cheers:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.52.05 PM

Tanaka finishes the move (those guns on the wall behind help us orient):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.52.12 PM

A new angle on Kilmer, shooting through the railing on the stairs, with the kitchen behind him:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.52.20 PM

Tighter on the couch. Notice how we’ve lost Hanako and Eiko. That’s pretty intentional (though I won’t get to why in this analysis, it’s important to the emotional narrative):

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.52.25 PM

Back to Kilmer who turns. He’s still facing frame right, but at a more extreme angle:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.52.31 PM

More frequent cuts between Kilmer and Tanaka. It’s a true cross-cut, though within the same time and space:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.52.37 PM

This is understandably Kilmer’s hand. How do we know? We know where he is. We’ve seen the fringes of that curtain before. We just saw him turn:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.52.44 PM

He fires. His guy goes down, left to right:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.52.51 PM

Tanaka reacts.

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.53.01 PM

Couch man also reacts, firing and causing Kilmer to duck as rocks skid up:

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.53.08 PM Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 12.53.15 PM

Whew. That’s only about 2/3 of the scene, but I got tired. It’s interesting to see how Pollack does a variety of things to establish. He uses screen direction very carefully, pits a lot of one-on-ones that are then cross-cut with a concurrent one-on-one, and uses the set design to intentionally remind us of where we are.

There aren’t many over-the-shoulders or huge wides in this space. That helps keep it tense, but it’s never confusing. All of the moving parts stay carefully ordered also via the edit. Cuts to Wheat, Hanako and Eiko often serve to give us a breather from the gunfire and swordplay at work otherwise. A reaction like that can give us only one thing to really look at: eyeline. So it’s not only a temporal break, but we’re able to quickly trace the gaze and relate it to the shot just before and/or just after, thereby making a new connection.

Pollack changes “good guy” screen direction midway through this example, but most importantly, he keeps Kilmer’s and Tanaka’s screen directions the same. They’re a team and Dusty’s dead.

It’s a brilliant sequence in a film that’s really very good. Probably my favorite Pollack.

Advertisements

About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Yakuza (Pollack, 1974)

  1. John L. Ghertner says:

    Don’t forget The Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night.

  2. Pingback: Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015) | dcpfilm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s