Sydney Pollack’s early career makes him one of the most fascinating of the directors who became known as the “New Hollywood.” Like many of older directors, he started working in anthology television as a director of segments for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and even sometimes an as actor, with an episode of The Twilight Zone being his most notable early on-screen role. He then directed a bunch of stuff starring his early champion Burt Lancaster, including The Scalphunters and Castle Keep, and was the director for reshoots on the cult classic The Swimmer. Things really started to change when he made They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, however, as it was a massive critical and commercial hit and remains one of the most-cited films made by members of the New Hollywood group.
Robert Redford soon came into Pollack’s life, and Redford became his go-to actor for many films, with their most interesting collaboration being the ultra-paranoid conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor. They would normally collaborate on serious dramas, which would always be up for awards. Other than Condor, which harkens back into the more oft-kilter films he did in ’60s—movies that always had some kind of genre crisis going on—Pollack did make one real abnormality during the ’70s. It was The Yakuza, a kind of east-meets-west gangster noir film written by Paul and Leonard Schrader, with some script doctoring by none other than Chinatown‘s Robert Towne.
Pollack was brought in by the film’s star Robert Mitchum, who of course was one of if not the greatest noir actor. Originally Robert Aldrich, who was probably better suited for this kind of high-octane action thriller stuff, was the director, with Lee Marvin set to play the lead. However, this wasn’t to be. Of course, Pollock entertained the notion of replacing Mitchum with Redford but, not to knock Redford, he wouldn’t have been right, because Mitchum owns the film.
At the time, the Schraders had put the highest price ever on a script, and it brought him $300,000. I’m pretty certain that the original script went far more into the cultural dilemma, and Paul Schrader especially would’ve thrown some religious allegory stuff in. Leonard Schrader had actually lived in Japan for a few years, and knew the world of the Yakuza firsthand, so there is a significant amount of authenticity.
Mitchum plays a detective who is called upon by an old friend who asks him to return to Japan to rescue his daughter, who has been kidnapped by the Yakuza. This is kind of a dry run for the male characters Schrader would write in the late ’70s for Taxi Driver and Hardcore: men who had to infiltrate a seedy underbelly in one way or another to retrieve an innocent girl. Martin Scorsese was desperate to the direct the film after Mean Streets, but wasn’t a big enough name yet.
Mitchum perfectly gets the weariness and casual badassery needed for the role, and he totally holds his own physically against the younger Japanese actors. The film has a great respect for Japanese culture and for the code of honour and loyalty of the country, which of course harks back to its Samurai past. It’s not a perfect or even a great film, but it’s a fascinating look into Japan at that time. The Yakuza was made only a few years after Yukio Mishima’s attempted a coup against the government, and given the Schraders’ collaboration on the stunning biopic of him a decade later, his work hangs over the film in a strange way.
It’s a film that didn’t set the box-office on fire, nor was it even highly regarded by critics at the time but, it’s a fascinating origin story for the Schraders and forms this very odd chapter in Pollack’s career. The next chapter saw Pollack directing big ’80s Oscar-winning films like Tootsie and Out of Africa. Over the years it’s gained a small cult following, which is probably more down to Mitchum and the Schraders than to Pollack’s involvement with the film.
This Premium collection release is an HMV exclusive. It includes postcards and the film on Blu-Ray and DVD, and it’s all in a nice slipcase. The special features, as with the Point Blank release also out this week, are a director’s commentary and a short vintage featurette.