About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Two New Detectives on the Trail of a Monster

By Sean Lynch
510 KB (384 pages}
Publisher: Exhibit A (May 28, 2013)
Amazon Digital Services, Inc.

The first two days of this week I was having so much fun that I began to worry the cops were going to kick in my door and pile inside to find out what sort of illegal drug I was using. 

What occasioned my hilarity? Simple: I've been reading a delightful thriller called Wounded Prey by Sean Lynch, a retired Northern California cop who has taken up crime fiction as a post law enforcement career.

Wounded Prey, Lynch's  first novel, introduces a pair of investigators that I hope will be around for a long, long time: retired San Francisco Police Inspector Bob Farrell and Story County (Iowa) Deputy Sheriff Kevin Kearns. This unlikely duo is thrown together by a serial child killer that each of them has failed to stop: Farrell when he was working as a military police officer during the Vietnam War and Kearns when he was out jogging and happened onto the site where the killer was abducting his next victim.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice to say Farrell is a master scammer who thinks nothing of passing himself off as (1) a lawyer to a roomful of cops and FBI agents, (2) an FBI agent to the administrators of a Veterans Hospital and (3) a coroner's investigator to police at the scene of a multiple murder.

Kearns, on the other hand, is as green as guacamole, but as stubborn as a pack mule -- and hotheaded enough to break an FBI agent's nose when the fed suggests he did less than his best while struggling to subdue the killer at a school bus stop.

Together, this pair tracks the villain from Iowa to California, getting into a series of shootouts and fistfights along the way. They manage to stay several steps ahead of the police and the self-aggrandizing federal agents who have pushed their way into the case until the very end, and the novel concludes with a violent confrontation that should satisfy even the pickiest reader.

In "Wounded Prey," the writing sparkles. Sometimes Lynch gives you a tiny literary gem, like the brief passage in which Kearns, besieged by reporters on a frigid midwestern night, opens the door for one of his colleagues in the sheriff's department: "Evers came in, his breath visible." he writes, giving a sharp but terse visual image of the cold. 

Author Sean Lynch: he tells a first-rate story in a stylish way that is a pleasure to read.

The simplicity of this six-word sentence belies the thought that Lynch put into it. It does exactly what is needed, and it does it with flare.

At other times, Lynch airs his prose out with the confidence born of his no-nonsense style. Here's Farrell, whose picture doubtless appears in Webster's next to the phrase, "unmade bed," getting up in the morning:

[He] stared at his sagging jowls and grunted. His thinning hair, which he'd grown long on the left side of his balding head and slicked over to the right, had flopped the wrong way during his sleep and stood straight up like an erection.

Exhaling smoke through his nostrils, he patted down his errant hair and said to his reflection, "At least one part of my anatomy will still stand up."

Not only does this passage give you the visual, but it also tells you that Farrell (1) is getting old and (2) maintains a sense of humor about it.

Toward the book's conclusion, Farrell tells Kearns he is opening a private detective agency and asks the young deputy if he wants to be a part of it.

"I don't know the first thing about being a private investigator," Kearns said truthfully.

"What's to know?" [Farrell says]. "You're smart, resourceful, good with your fists and a gun, and I could use the help. Besides, we belong together. We're a team, you and me. Like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, or Holmes and Watson."

"More like Gilligan and the skipper," Kearns said.

Here Lynch moves his story forward, but does so with a joke. His graveyard humor is one of the things I liked most about his book, as it leavens Wounded Prey's violence and grim subject matter. The villain is a human killing machine and his crimes are horrifying, but Lynch's light touch 
counterbalances the darkness of the story and most readers will find something that makes them laugh every few pages.

If Wounded Prey has a flaw, it lies in the fact that Lynch occasionally repeats himself when he has his characters explain that their desperation to capture or kill the villain stems from their failure to stop him when they had their first chance. Once this point has been made, it doesn't need to be restated. The author would be better off having faith that his readers get it and moving on from there.

However, this is a very minor defect in a very good book, and certainly not one that seriously interfered with my pleasure in reading it.

According to his blog, Lynch is already at work on his next novel and expects to release it next year. I, for one, will be counting the days until he again has me worrying that my laughter will bring the police knocking on my door.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

"Hammett:" Don't Hurt 'Em!

Directed by Wim Wenders from a story by Joe Gores and others.
Starring Frederic Forrest, Peter Boyle, Marilu Henner.

If you like men in fedora hats, women in red lipstick and clunky heels, mystery stories that go nowhere in particular and films that intend to give the appearance of multiple locations, but actually have the claustrophobic feel of something cranked out on a single sound stage, Hammett may be right up that mean street you call your alley.

On the other hand, if you like the novels and stories of Dashiell Hammett (author of The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, among others), the films of Wim Wenders (The American Friend, Paris, Texas), or the novels of Joe Gores (Gone -- No Forwarding, 32 Cadillacs), skip this one.

Accept no substitutes: The real Dashiell Hammett

Hammett fails to deliver in virtually every possible way: the dialog is weak (ironically, the best lines are copped directly from Hammett's own stories), the characters are cardboard cut-outs, the plot as dull as the back side of a cleaver and the storyline so feeble that a priest should be summoned to administer last rites.

You would be better off watching a real Dashiell Hammett classic like The Maltese Falcon (John Huston,1941), The Glass Key (Stuart Heisler,1942), or even The Dain Curse, a 1978 TV mini-series by E.W. Swackhamer that adheres closely to the plot of the original and is surprisingly entertaining. 

In Hammett, the former Pinkerton detective is now living in a San Francisco flat and grinding out crime yarns for pulp magazines like Black Mask. He is finishing a story at the film's beginning and we hear his words in a voice-over narration as he pounds them out on an ancient manual typewriter. Unfortunately, the narration sets the tone for the movie -- the manuscript he is writing sounds more like a parody of a hard-boiled detective yarn than anything Hammett ever wrote.

The voice-over narration at the beginning tells us we're in for a bumpy ride.
It is cornier than an explosion in a Frito-Lay plant.

He is contacted by an old chum from his detective days (Peter Boyle) who seeks his aid in a missing person case -- a young Chinese woman (Crystal Ling, played by Linda Lei) has disappeared.

Hammett discovers that Ling is part of an extortion scheme in which wealthy San Francisco businessmen who have been covertly photographed dallying with her are being blackmailed for big bucks. In the process of solving the mystery and unmasking the villains behind it, Hammett meets up with Chinatown gangsters, crooked cops and the operators of a commercial sex industry.

Hammett (the lightly talented Frederic Forrest) switches from writer to detective for this film, but his detective work is negligible.

While these fragments may seem adequate building blocks for a decent hard-boiled detective yarn, they fail to match up to the actual depravity and criminality that existed in San Francisco during the period depicted. In other words, the true story of San Franciscan prostitution, Tong warfare and corruption during the first quarter of the twentieth century is both more sensational and lurid than the historical fiction conjured by filmmakers and novelists fifty years later. It is also considerably more interesting than this kludged-together piece of detritus. 

In addition, the "mystery" of the movie is not compelling. We are given no real reason to care about Crystal Ling or the Jimmy Ryan character played by Peter Boyle. In fact, we are given no real reason to care about Hammett, the central figure in the story, aside from the fact that he became famous some time after the period depicted in the film.

And while Marilu Henner, as Kitt Conger, plays a leading female part, it is unclear whether she is supposed to be a romantic interest for Hammett, a close friend or just some woman who was parachuted into the script to provide a female mannequin for some of the retro 1930s outfits that are showcased in the film.  

Hammett, who was tubercular, is too bloodless a protagonist to hold up his half of any sexual dynamics and Henner's character seems to have no other purpose in the story except to tag along and swap half-hearted wisecracks with Forrest.

Ordinarily, I can take at least some pleasure in seeing the performances that character actors put into a picture like this. Unfortunately, the bit players who appear in Hammett -- and there are at least a dozen of them, including such standbys as R. G. Armstrong, Roy Kinnear, Elisha Cook Jr. and Sylvia Sidney -- have so little do that their presence in the movie is more depressing than elevating.

Even veteran character actors like R. G. Armstrong (foreground) can't save Hammett.

The back story on this cinematic disaster is that Francis Coppola hired Wenders to direct the movie while Coppola was tied up making Apocalypse Now. Wenders filmed all but the conclusion of Hammett in 1979, but had trouble putting the final scenes together.

By then, Coppola was finished with his Vietnam epic and turned his attention to Hammett. He didn't finish rewriting, re-shooting and reediting the film until 1982. Frederic Forrest, who plays Hammett in the movie, gained so much weight making an unrelated film during the layoff that his original scenes no longer could be matched. Waiting for him to lose the extra avoirdupois also delayed the film's completion.

Winders says Coppola re-shot so much of the movie  that several of the parts had to be recast because the actors who had originally played them -- including Sidney and famed director Sam Fuller -- had died in the meantime. He estimates that only ten percent of his original shoot ended up in the film.

Who knows? A Wenders version of the story might be pretty good. The mystery could actually be mysterious, and the thriller might really have a few thrills. Unfortunately, we'll never know.

If you want to find out what Gores, a fine mystery writer and Edgar winner in his own right, had in mind in the first place, you are better off buying the eponymously named novel, or checking it out of your local library. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"It Was Easy:" Mickey Spillane's Hardboiled Masterpiece and The Two Flawed Films It Inspired

I, The Jury

By Mickey Spillane
579 KB
Length: 160 pages
Publisher: Signet (February 1, 1982)
Sold by: Penguin Publishing
Language: English

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't read this book or seen the two movies that have been made from it, you may want to give this essay a pass. It contains the solution -- such as it is -- to the murder mystery the story revolves around and describes the fate of a key character.

I, The Jury, the 1947 Mickey Spillane novel that introduced tough and violent private eye Mike Hammer, is arguably Spillane's most cinematic book.

It begins with a graphic description of the death of his one-armed wartime buddy, Jack Williams, that lets the reader relive the dead man's last minutes on earth; it ends with a terse exchange between the private eye and William's murderer that has to be the most memorable dialog Spillane wrote in any of the 13 Mike Hammer novels he turned out as a solo author.

The Mickster: I, The Jury is arguably Spillane's most cinematic book.

In between, the book is loaded with action. By its end, no less than seven people are dead, two of them at Hammer's hands. He is beaten so regularly he might be mistaken for a cowbell in one of Tito Puente's bands. He narrowly misses being killed by gunfire on three separate occasions, and he twice engages in sexual dalliances with a nymphomaniac twin.

For the most part, the dialog is edgy. Some of it -- like the final colloquy -- is about as good as you are likely to find in the world of pulp. Consider the way Spillane's hero sketches the back-story on how Williams saved his life during the Pacific War:

"In there was my best friend lying on the floor dead. The body. Now I could call it that. Yesterday it was Jack Williams, the guy that shared the same mud bed with me through two years of warfare in the stinking slime of the jungle. Jack, the guy who said he'd give his right arm for a friend and did when he stopped a bastard of a Jap from slitting me in two. He caught the bayonet in the biceps and they amputated his arm."

The plot turns on a high-rent prostitution and dope ring with a unique -- if unlikely -- recruitment mechanism: one of the ringleaders uses repeated plastic surgery to maintain a perpetually youthful look. He enters colleges all over the country, seduces promising coeds, and turns them into hookers after he helps them get abortions. 

There is plenty of corruption powering the narrative, and the novel boasts Spillane's characteristic red noir portrayal of wealthy people as inherently evil to the point of psychopathy.

For all these reasons, I consider I, The Jury to be the best book Spillane ever wrote as well as the most promising candidate for movie treatment. Whole scenes require only a little doctoring to convert them into the pages of a motion picture script.

Which raises the question: why do the two theatrical movies that have been made from this novel fall so far short of Spillane's original? (A third film with a vaguely similar plot, Margin for Murder, was made for TV in 1981 with Kevin Dobson as Hammer, but Margin differs from the original source material in so many substantial ways that it doesn't bear inclusion with the two films recapped here.)

The original I, The Jury was a 3-D production produced by Victor Saville's bargain basement Parklane Pictures.

In the case of the original Jury, made in 1953 by Victor Saville's Parklane Pictures, a low-budget indy production outfit headquartered on Hollywood's Poverty Row, the script begins with a faithful on-screen recreation of the murder that keys the action, a grueling sequence that runs the entire length of the opening credits and sets the tone for the film -- or would, if the script written by Harry Essex from Spillane's novel adhered more closely to the original story line. You can check the trailer for the film here.

Hammer (Biff Elliott) and Velda (Margaret Sheridan).

The film actually ends on a high note, using Spillane's words and narrative during Hammer's climactic confrontation with Williams' killer: psychiatrist-turned-madam-and-drug-dealer Charlotte Manning.

Hammer confronts Charlotte Manning (Peggy Castle) 
at the conclusion of the 1953 version.
But in between almost everything goes wrong with the story, despite several fine performances and some excellent noir photography by cinematographer John Alton.  

First of all, as was the case in My Gun is Quick, the prostitution and drug ring is turned into a stolen jewelry racket in the 1953 screen version, a change no doubt forced by the distaste the Motion Picture Production Code -- as enforced by Catholic censor-in-chief Joseph Ignatius Breen -- held for cinematic sex in virtually any form, but particularly as a commercial commodity. (The heroin racket operated by Manning is retained in the retooled plot, but only as a sidelight for the other criminal activity that drives the story).

This shift in story line forces wholesale changes in some of the characters in the story. George Kalecki (Alan Reed), a former numbers runner deeply involved in the prostitution ring, becomes a retired numbers runner now operating as an international art dealer whose globe-trotting travel allows him to traffic in stolen gems.

Bobo (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a semi-retarded messenger boy who formerly worked for Kalecki, becomes a member of Kalecki's gang, posing as mentally slow to disguise his illegal activity. A gang of thugs that appears nowhere in the novel is injected into the film to give Hammer a couple of gratuitous thrashings. The woman who operates the house of ill repute in the novel is transformed into a couple posing as foreign dance instructors, and the whorehouse itself is converted into a spot where a would-be Fred Astaire can get cha-cha lessons.

Needless to say, these silly changes weaken the plot and make the criminals involved seem less formidable and less dangerous.

But even these ridiculous alterations to the story line -- including the ludicrous revisions required to get past Hollywood censorship -- might have worked had Saville found somebody to play Hammer besides the pathetic Biff Elliott, arguably the worst actor to ever appear as a hard-boiled detective.  Elliott manages only two basic expressions in the film: a sort of stupefied amusement, as if he is just getting the punch line of a joke someone told him a day earlier, and a stricken deer-in-the-spotlight stare that he falls back on to demonstrate that he is (1) perplexed, (2) deep in thought, (3) surprised at some development in the case or (4) not sure what his next line in the script is supposed to be.
Mike Hammer avoids collection agents as he leaves his office.
Ironically, although he boxed as an amateur and contended for a New England regional championship, Elliott doesn't make a convincing tough guy. His performance is adequate in Jury's numerous fight sequences, but Elliott simply does not seem big enough, dangerous enough or ruthless enough to be Mike Hammer. 

To demonstrate his hot-headed nature, early in the film Hammer attacks a newspaper reporter at the scene of William's death and slams him into a china cabinet and mirror.  Although this is supposed to show his readiness to engage in violence, Elliott's assault seems more petulant than sadistic. He comes across like a cranky 15-year old instead of a world-weary detective with a mean streak.

Elliott's Hammer also seems too naive; no one would expect Spillane's gumshoe to quote Proust or discuss the strategic errors that led to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, but he is supposed to be fairly shrewd. Elliott's shrewdness is a major fail: he simply seems stupid through most of the film, and gives the impression that perhaps the beatings he receives every few minutes are causing more substantial damage to his brain than to his exterior.

(Saville did much better two years later when his director, Robert Aldrich, hired Ralph Meeker to portray the celebrated gumshoe in Kiss Me, Deadly,  the second of Parklane's Mike Hammer flicks. Meeker's performance in that film strikes the perfect balance between stupidly hormonal and sadistically shrewd; moreover, Meeker, with his cold eyes and flat delivery, radiates danger in every scene, something Elliott couldn't do wearing a belt full of dynamite and carrying a lighted emergency flare. Even today, 58 years later, Meeker remains the gold standard for cinematic Mike Hammers.)

Not that there aren't some good performances in I, The Jury; Preston Foster does an excellent job as Hammer's police friend, Pat Chambers, even though he seems too old for the part opposite the youthful Elliott; when Hammer sasses Chambers, it's hard not to imagine Foster paddling him and sending him to bed without supper.

Peggy Castle is sensational as the femme fatale Charlotte Manning, and Margaret Sheridan is easy on the eyes as Velda, Hammer's faithful but romantically frustrated assistant. It would have been nice to see her given more to do in this picture.

There are also some good lesser parts. Cook, who gets a break here from playing a cold-eyed psychopath like Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon or a hopeless schnook like Harry Jones, the loser forced to drink poison by Lash Canino in The Big Sleep, is fine as Bobo, though the character plays a more significant part in the novel than in this film. Joe Besser, who was a foil for Abbott and Costello on their TV show in the 1950s and later replaced Curly Howard as one of the three stooges, seems to be having fun as Hammer's elevator operator, Pete.

But ultimately, the movie fails, for reasons that have nothing to do with Mickey Spillane, but everything to do with Hollywood.

The 1982 version of I,The Jury starring Armand Assante as Hammer and Barbara Carrera as Charlotte Manning, is also a failure of sorts, though it achieves the cynicism and nihilistic world view of the original. Its errors also stem from plot changes, albeit changes that were made for totally different reasons from those in the version produced twenty-nine years earlier.

The 1982 cinematic version of Spillane's masterpiece substantially kicks up the sex and violence quotients.

Both the violence and sex are ginned-up in the 1982 Jury: unfortunately, they keep tripping over a complicated plot line that involves crooked CIA agents, corrupt cops, traditional gangsters, gun trafficking and the use of a sexual psychopath to eliminate political undesirables, a plot point that seems thrown in simply to give Hammer somebody else to kill.

Take a look at the theatrical trailer linked here.

Once again, the body of the film is sandwiched between the death of Jack Williams and Hammer's score-settling confrontation with Manning. But Williams' death must wait while director Richard Heffron tacks on a prologue in which Hammer beds a woman he has been hired to surveil for adultery. 

Velda (Laureen Landen) and Hammer (Armand Assante)
hold office hours in the 1982 I, The Jury.
This intro is unrelated to the rest of the story, and was included solely to demonstrate that Assante's Hammer is the kind of stud Biff Elliott could not have imagined himself being in his soggiest wet-dream.

Superficially at least, Assante makes a much stronger Hammer that Elliott: he is quicker with a quip than Spillane's original, less of a drinker and more of a bedroom artist. He also hits the red-line on the danger meter -- there isn't a time in this film when you aren't convinced that Assante's Hammer is at least as frighteningly out of control as the bad guys.

Hammer (Assante) loads and locks for a confrontation
with corrupt CIA agents and an underworld kingpin.

The 1982 film is almost a fun-house mirror inversion of the 1953 Parklane movie. It has all the sex that was included in the novel and left out of the Biff Elliott flick, plus enough extra to make an additional film. The Assante version even has full frontal nudity -- twice, in one instance, courtesy of sex surrogate twins who work at Manning's "clinic." 

In the clinic sequence alone, the film explicitly makes up for all the sex that is hinted at but never delivered in the 1947 novel: Naked, dope-addled couples grope each other while a murderer is at work upstairs. Unfortunately, this upper-middle-class orgy doesn't precisely conjure up the intended atmosphere; it is supposed to portray a CIA mind-fuck experiment, but all the scene lacks is strobe lights, a wah-wah pedal and body paint to give it the psychedelic flare of a Mitchell Brothers blue movie about the "Summer of Love."

Manning's sex racket in the novel was run by proxies, allowing her to maintain her image as a respectable psychoanalyst. But in the 1982 film, Manning runs the brothel operation herself -- as a sexual dysfunction clinic that uses prostitutes as surrogates and drugs its clientele as part of the "healing" experience. The rogue CIA operatives behind Manning have cobbled together an intelligence gathering adjunct to the sex racket and maintain detailed files on all the patients, collected in part through illegal electronic surveillance.

None of these pieces really make much sense, but they don't have to: by 1982, a decade of revelations about illegal U.S. spying, dope testing, assassination plots and honey traps had conditioned Americans to distrust their espionage services almost as much as the KGB.

And while the critics didn't much care for Hammer's violently thuggish persona in the Spillane flicks of the 1950s, the 1982 version makes the earlier Hammer seem as soft as a cream puff.

No fewer than nine people end up dead in the more recent movie, six of them at Hammer's hands. Velda and Mike are separately tortured, a pair of twins are carved up by a psycho, a prostitute on a "date" with a customer in a Benihana-style Japanese restaurant has her throat slashed by the chef for no apparent reason, and Hammer retaliates by doing a face-griddle fu demonstration on the cook.

One thing is clear from this last episode: Hammer doesn't care for teppanyaki.

What's more, there were no car chases, explosions or machine-gunnings in the 1953 version, but all three occur in the Assante film.

Given the overdose of sex and violence, it comes as no surprise that at the climax Hammer faces off against a Charlotte Manning who is topless; in the 1953 film, the shrink never got more than her coat off.

The fatal clinch at the end of I, The Jury.

Both movies do one thing right, however, and it comes straight out of the 1947 Spillane novel: as Manning tries to talk her way out of her final confrontation with Hammer, he shoots her without a moment's hesitation, setting up the best dialog in the film:

Manning (dying): How c-could you?

Hammer (deadpan): It was easy.

A lot easier, apparently, than making a Mike Hammer film that is faithful to Spillane's original story. In my opinion, both films of I, The Jury would have been vastly improved by simply sticking to the Mickster's version.


Spillane's original novel: five nooses.

1982 film version: three nooses.

1953 film version: two nooses.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Yakuza Noir Flick is Hard-boiled But Thoughtful

Directed by Tadeshi Kitano (Beat Tadeshi)
Starring Tadeshi Kitano, Aya Kokumai, Tetsu Watanabe, Susumu Terajima, Masanobu Katsumura and Tonbo Zushi.

Doubly trapped by caste and class, the fictional Japanese Yakuza (also known as Gokudo) is the prototypical noir anti-hero.  He is a criminal who exists in a violent world of tainted institutions, subsisting through corruption and brutality as the follower of a chivalric code which is itself a sham.

To the Yakuza of film and literature, nothing and no one is to be trusted. The gangster's conception of duty is fraudulent; the loyalty of his comrades and oyabun (boss), though obligatory, is questionable. Those outside his criminal circle are either victims to be duped or witnesses to be intimidated or killed. The Japanese gangster's life is as hardboiled as it gets, marked by perpetual war broken only by periods of imprisonment or death.

Given this lifestyle, it's not surprising that when Oyabun Kitayama (Tonbo Zushi) sends his lieutenant, Aniki Murakawa (Tadeshi), to Okinawa to mediate a dispute between two other gangs, Murakawa's suspicions are immediately aroused.

Murakawa's Oyabun (boss), Kitayama

You see, Murakawa, a middle-aged member of a Tokyo Yakuza clan, is weary of the violent Yakuza lifestyle and wants out. As he puts it himself half jokingly to his bodyguard, Ken (Susumu Terajima):

Murakawa: Ken, I'm thinking about retiring.
Ken: We've been living this tough life too long.
Murakawa: Yeah. I'm worn out.
Ken (smiling): Maybe you're too rich for this life.

Accompanied by Ken and a group of soldiers from his clan, Murakawa travels to the seaside town where the underworld war is supposedly under way. His suspicions are aroused further when a local gangster, Uechi (Tetsu Watanabe) tells him that the dispute is actually very minor in nature and is close to resolution.

Murakawa (center) and his crew arrive in Okinawa.

After the fly-blown office his men are using as a headquarters is blown up by a bomb and a group of gunmen shoot it out with part of his crew in a small bar, it becomes obvious that a gang war is, in fact,  underway -- and Murakawa's clan is its target. He takes several men with him and holes up in a house on the beach while he tries to figure out what to do next.

In Sonatine, Murakawa shoots it out with a rival clan in an Okinawan saloon.
At the beach, Murakawa and his allies amuse themselves by playing games, conducting target practice and waiting for word from Kitayama. During a midnight stroll, Murakawa sees a young woman named Miyuki (Aya Kokumai) who is being sexually assaulted. He kills her assailant and she becomes his companion, a bond consummated in an openly phallic fashion when he allows her to fire his machine gun.

At the beach, the gangsters amuse themselves with horseplay
 including an absurd Sumo competion.

 Then a mysterious assassin disguised as a fisherman (Eiji Minakata) appears and kills Ken and Uechi. Murakawa learns that Takahashi (Ken'ichi Yajima), a member of his Tokyo clan, is staying in a luxury hotel on the beach and takes several men to see him. A shootout ensues and Murakawa tortures Takahashi to learn the truth: that he has been set up, his clan's territory is being divided among other gangsters and he is to be killed.

Murakawa disposes of Takahashi and uses his machine gun to take on the combined clans as they meet in the hotel to divide up his territory. After he single-handedly wipes out the treacherous Yakuza, he pulls his getaway car over to the side of the road and shoots himself in the head.

His suicide is effectively preordained by the fact that he has lost his position in the clan and turned on his former gangster allies. Given the suffocating system of alliances Murakawa faces, a system he has repudiated by showing disloyalty to his clan and boss, the Japanese criminal's code makes no other action possible.

Sonatine, Tadeshi's fourth movie, is a brilliant piece of noir film-making, despite the fact that it was commercially unsuccessful and earned the antipathy of critics at the time it was released. 

The film is permeated by the scent of doom from its earliest sequence in which Murakawa is attempting to extort the owner of a Tokyo Mahjong parlor.

When the owner refuses to pay, Murakawa tells him, "You're dead, asshole."  

The Mahjong man stands his ground, telling the Yakuza, "Don't say stupid things." 

"You're the stupid thing," Murakawa says, deadpan, as he leaves. A short time later, he and his minions drown the recalcitrant businessman in Tokyo Bay.

Although the drowning sequence is presented to establish Murakawa as a gangster, Mahjong has a deeper symbolism in the film as a game in which other players influence play and luck is critical. The Mahjong operator's death is accidental and comes as a surprise to the Yakuza;  Murakawa and his men intended only to scare the man. 

The game analogy is developed further during the beach house scenes when Ryogi and Ken use cut-out strips of cardboard to make a miniature kamizumo (spirit sumo) set-up. Later they improvise a sumo ring on the sand, and use their life-sized ring to simulate a match like the cardboard version.

Here Tadeshi seems to be telling the viewer that even a seemingly self-directed gangster like Murakawa is controlled by others, and his success or failure is largely a matter of fate.

It is clear that violence to Murakawa is a part of that game, and that his success as a player is a function of his calculation and skill at using brutality to achieve his ends.  The point is brought home when Murakawa finds Ryogi and Ken relieving their boredom by taking turns shooting a tin can off each other's heads. 

Ken and Ryogi practice shooting a can off each other's
heads, a game that leads to a haunting Russian Roulette match.

He empties all but one chamber of the gun for a quick game of Russian Roulette. When he takes what should be the final turn and the hammer of the revolver falls on an empty chamber, the others realize he has controlled the outcome by cheating. It is precisely what Oyabun Kitayama and his henchman Takahashi are doing in a more sinister fashion behind the scenes, and the point is made that the only way to guarantee the outcome of the game is to violate the rules.

Later, Murakawa dreams of the Russian Roulette game, but his dream version ends with the gun going off and killing him. The scene presages the conclusion of the film,

and helps to establish the gangster's equivocal attitude about dying, a subject he refers to obliquely during an exchange with Miyuki:

Miyuki: You're tough. I love tough guys.
Aniki Murakawa: I wouldn't carry a gun if I were tough.
Miyuki: You can shoot without a second thought.
Aniki Murakawa: I shoot fast because I get scared fast.
Miyuki: But you're not afraid of dying, are you?
Aniki Murakawa: When you're scared all the time, you reach a point when you wish you were dead.

This statement, in fact, is simply a twisted rendering of the samurai code, in which the swordsman lives in accordance with bushido, the way of the warrior, and is thereby able to ignore his own peril.

According to the Hagakure, a 17th century book of precepts for warriors, "If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way."

On the surface, Sonatine appears to be a simple gangster film, but despite its exotic Japanese setting and characters, it is a film noir masterpiece similar in some ways to Jean Pierre Melville's Le Samourai starring Alain Delon. It is as good a hard-boiled crime film as any you are likely to see.

(Incidentally, for those who too busy to look it up, the title, Sonatine, is from the Italian word for a short sonata, Sonatina.)