The Lower Depths Review
Maxim Gorky’s 1902 play The Lower Depths, set in the author’s then-present day Russia, clearly lends itself to a whole series of settings and eras. There have been numerous big- and small-screen adaptations over the years, transposing this tale of a group of impoverished misfits and outsiders to such far flung locales as Finland, China and India. The BBC even got into the act in 1958 for their weekly Sunday Night Theatre series. And, of course, there is Jean Renoir’s famous 1936 take on the play starring Jean Gabin and told in the director’s celebrated poetic realism style. The other famous version is Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 relocation to a Tokyo tenement during the late Edo period. Just one of series of adaptations by the great filmmaker, it sits alongside celebrated interpretations of writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. Yet whereas Kurosawa’s takes on Macbeth (in Throne of Blood), King Lear (in Ran) and Hamlet (in The Bad Sleep Well) offered distinct variations on their sources, The Lower Depths is surprisingly faithful. Indeed, whilst he was no stranger in bringing theatre (and theatrical styles) to the big screen, this film represents arguably the least cinematic of all his works.
Kurosawa opted to shoot The Lower Depths in a fashion that now seems very televisual. He utilised three cameras during filming, each running simultaneously and capturing the action in long takes. Furthermore he has, essentially, just two sets at his disposal, although exterior shots are utilised when the drama demands it. At this point in his career Kurosawa was still using the Academy ratio (the following year’s The Hidden Fortress marked his widescreen debut) and he insisted on an intensive rehearsal period, in full costume, prior to the cameras eventually rolling. The techniques are little different from the television dramas of the day or indeed the vast majority of filmed theatre examples. The simplicity of the production also explains how Kurosawa was able to complete the film so soon after wrapping on the more ambitious - and audacious - Throne of Blood, which despite its origins in Shakespeare and Noh-styled performances remains incredibly cinematic throughout.
The theatrical elements are not just apparent visually but also rhythmically. Those extensive rehearsal periods (reportedly lasting for 40 days) have resulted in a precision that sees every mark hit just so, whether verbally or in terms of reaction. The outcome isn’t firmly anti-realist, but it does give The Lower Depths a slightly stylised edge. It forces the viewer to pay attention to the dialogue rather than the characters, though that’s not to say the performances are somehow lacking. Kurosawa has brought together a fine mixed-gender ensemble headed up - of course - by Toshiro Mifune. He’s the petty thief who acts as the unofficial leader of these tenement dwellers, a ragtag group of gamblers, alcoholics and prostitutes. An ex-samurai also finds a place, as does a failed actor. A new arrival in the shape of Bokuzen Hidari’s elderly gentlemen alters the power balance and prompts the dramas that are to follow. Mifune brings his usual physicality to his role and he’s nicely counterbalanced by Hidari’s relative poise and control.
Despite the bleakness of the setting and every single one of The Lower Depths’ characters (each of whom is delusional to same great extent or other), Kurosawa avoids his usual tendency towards sentimentality. The faithfulness towards Gorky’s original lends a toughness towards proceedings with the playwright’s ending remaining intact. (Unlike Renoir’s earlier version.) Yet if this fidelity stifles the sentimentality, then arguably it also does the same for Kurosawa’s more celebrated characteristics. There is little opportunity for his usual dynamism (most pointedly in the many action scenes from his samurai films) or his occasional moments of quiet lyricism (think of Takashi Shimura sat on the swing in the snow towards Ikiru’s close). I’m not suggesting that Kurosawa should have interjected a bone-breaking fight sequence - not that it did Red Beard any harm! - but the self-imposed restrictions and overall respect for the Gorky original do make The Lower Depths, to these eyes, a comparatively minor work. It has the company of that remarkable run of films made during the fifties and sixties to contend with and, when set alongside the likes of Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, High and Low, et al - all of which remain astonishing pieces of cinema - it cannot help but pale slightly. There is much to appreciate, but appreciate is the key word here; The Lower Depths is too restrained to draw a genuine enthusiasm.
The Lower Depths was last released in the UK way back in 1993 onto VHS by the BFI’s Connoisseur label. It was one of a number of Kurosawa tapes they issued, all of which found their way onto DVD some time ago except for this one. It finally made its UK DVD debut in October courtesy of an exclusive appearance in the BFI’s Kurosawa Classic Collection boxed-set alongside another of the director’s previously unavailable works (in the UK, that is), Dodes’ka-den and a repackage of three older BFI discs: Ikiru, I Live in Fear and Red Beard. Click the titles for reviews of the latter; a review of Dodes’ka-den will appear on this site shortly.
The print for The Lower Depths was supplied to the BFI by Toho and is in generally good condition. There is some crackle on the sound track and intermittent flashes of damage or instability to the image, but for the most part we have a perfectly watchable picture in possession of a fine level of detail. Grain levels vary and, at times, are quite heavy. One particular scene, around the midway point, also has a murky contrast to deal with, though this may very well be inherent the film’s production. Neither issue proves itself to be especially problematic. As should be expected the original Academy ratio and mono soundtrack are both preserved, whilst the English subtitles are optional.
There are no onscreen extras meaning the only addition comes in the form of James Bell’s booklet essay (where it sits alongside reprints of Philip Kemp’s liner notes for the extant discs and another newly commissioned piece by Bell on Dodes’ka-den). Occupying three pages it combines background information with a critical appreciation and, as with so many BFI booklet pieces, is well worth a read. Also present amongst the 26-pages are full credits for each of the Kurosawa Classic Collection inclusions and a number of illustrations including a rather fetching colour poster for Dodes-ka’den designed by Kurosawa himself.
Please note that the ratings in the sidebar apply solely to The Lower Depths and its disc, not the Kurosawa Classic Collection boxed-set as a whole.