Friday, March 28, 2008

REVIEW: Pitfall - Hiroshi Teshigahara (1962)

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

A basic human response to unknown or sudden sounds is fear - creaking doors, unexpected crashes, things that go bump in the night, etc. Japanese filmmakers have a deep understanding of this and have been happy to exploit it in many of their horror films to great effect. But it's not just recent directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa ("Pulse", "Cure") or Takashi Shimizu ("Ju-On: The Grudge", "Reincarnation") that appreciate it. An earlier generation of filmmakers (Nakagawa, Shindo, Kobayashi) knew it in their bones. Hiroshi Teshigahara's 1962 debut feature film "Pitfall" is another great example of a sound field giving rise to feelings of unease and dread around just about every corner - even though it isn't strictly a pure horror film or ghost story.

A young man and his son reach a deserted ghost town after drifting from mining job to mining job. They've been managing a meager existence doing what they have to in order to survive, but now a man in a white suit is following them, taking their picture and is about to change their lives. Teshigahara builds a fascinating film from this using a number of different tools - cinematography (Criterion's crisp transfer really showcases the beautiful and striking Black and White photography), numerous themes and a range of genre and stylistic conventions. The movie is not only an unsettling ghost story, but also a murder mystery, a tragic tale of human desperation and what seems to be criticism of authority (in general, but also specifically the mining industry of the times).

One of the recurring themes in the film is also a favorite of Shohei Imamura's - a fascination with the struggle between nature and human created elements thrust upon it. As well, the idea of voyeurism pops up again and again (people being watched or watching others). There's also a great deal of "doubling" occurring throughout the film - actions taken by one character are repeated in some way later on by another character. Teshigahara returns to these last two themes in even greater fashion in his later film "Face Of Another".

But back to the sound field of the film. To say the viewer is uneasy while watching it is putting it mildly. The audio of the film picks up every small grunt, sigh and little shuffle of the characters. Meanwhile, the music soundtrack is filled with sudden, discordant clanging, percussion thumps and tuneless music that sounds like free jazz played on harpsichords and gamelan gongs. It's creepily effective in making you very aware of the characters every move and keeping you on edge. It also creates the perfect atmosphere for the ghost town and the many souls that travel through it. You can tell there was a great deal of thought and care put into the design of what you end up hearing.

The outlook of the film is bleak, but if you want a terrific example of the craft and artistry of film making then look no further.

Read more by Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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