“Velvet Hustler”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

velvet

This 1967 crime picture, directed by Toshio Masuda, has a light, off-the-cuff quality. It’s perhaps too casual to qualify as lyrical, yet it seems to inhabit a musical universe, like one of Rene Clair’s early sound pictures. The hero, Goro (Tetsuya Watari), constantly whistles his own theme song; he’s in thrall to some internal hipster cadence. At one or two points in the movie the rest of the world picks up on his groove. He slugs a guy in a nightclub, and his followers fall into step behind him, all of them bobbing in unison as though they’d blipped, en masse, into a Stanley Donen picture.

“Velvet” is in the mode of the mid-century Japanese Yakuza film, the kind of thing Seijun Suzuki is known for. But it’s also a cynical gloss on “Breathless.” Goro suggests what Belmondo’s wannabe hood might have turned into had he lived: an assassin so post-everything that he can’t help but see through his own act. This may be what Masuda is hinting at when he shows us Goro peering through a slit he’s made in the brim of his fedora. It’s a peephole in the shell of his persona.

An accomplished director with a long history in genre films, Masuda gives the picture a strong graphic quality. He likes to shoot at an angle, his subjects framed in the distance by interstitial details. He then typically cuts to tight shots of their enormous, looming noggins. (On a few occasions I was reminded of the work of Yasuzo Masumura, a master of widescreen composition.) Shot on location in Kobe, the movie’s look manifests Goro’s contradictions: It’s a tug-of-war between bright pop sensationalism, mainly evident in the nightlife scenes, and drab, rusted-hull realism. (Goro says that Kobe smells like the ocean, and it looks like it.) “Velvet” loses a bit of steam when the two things that Goro cares about — semi-anonymous sex and his brother — come into conflict. It’s a drag watching this cynical prince go earnest.

Related

  • As far as I can tell, “Velvet Hustler” is not on DVD, but you can stream lots of other Yakuza films via Hulu. I can recommend “A Colt is My Passport,” also released in 1967.
  • The trailer:

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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