Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog opens, fittingly enough, on a close-up of a panting dog, cooking in the summer heat.  One of the film’s two main characters, both policemen, played by Takashi Shimura, continually wipes his face and brow of pouring sweat.  Throughout the film, his partner, Toshiro Mifune, looks disheveled in a crumpled linen suit.  No one’s clean and no one can get out of the heat. But when Mifune loses his gun, a very serious occurrence, things really heat up.

Most of the action centers on Kurosawa regular Mifune as a naive rookie cop, and his efforts to retrieve his gun.  But he’ll do so only under the patient guidance of Shimura’s wise mentor.

Stray Dog is a Japanese film in a class all its own.  Kurosawa loved detective novels, especially those written by Georges Simenon.  Stray Dog is his love letter to these influences and a terrific police procedural. It is often categorized as being film noir and rightly so, however this genre masterpiece, like many other Kurosawa films, is difficult to pin down.  It was released in 1949, eight years after the birth of film noir (black film) with The Maltese Falcon (’41) and almost 10 years before Touch of Evil (’58), what film critic Paul Schrader calls the genre’s death knell.

Many elements of a good film noir are here: the conflicted hero, the femme fatale, light and shadow, and a blurring of the line between good and evil. But all of this seems like an opportunity for Kurosawa to break the rules.

Kurosawa was a great student of Dostoevsky and Chekhov, humanist-realists who preferred not to pass judgment on their characters.  Kurosawa’s “stray dog,” though wrong for stealing a policeman’s gun, is revealed to be in deep emotional turmoil through Mifune’s careful digging into the man’s personal life. And while we’re not sure we understand what he’s going through when he shrieks in the middle of a white flowerbed at the film’s conclusion, we feel his pain.

Even aesthetically, Kurosawa brands his signature on film noir.  He balances a heavy use of dark shadow with a breathtaking scene in which Mifune and a pickpocket look up at the star-filled night, connected but still miles apart. Or a riveting montage in which Mifune poses as a Japanese soldier, searching desperately in the growing black market for his stolen gun.  Blinding white scenes filmed in the blazing sun are contrasted against a provocative night sequence in which Mifune, a naive rookie, saunters along a fence of prostitutes.  Kurosawa’s comments about the dangerous effects of post-war Western capitalism and the loosening threads of tradition are obvious but always handled deftly.

Stray Dog is an early-Kurosawa masterpiece and you’d be hard-pressed to find a cooler movie to ditch the summer heat. The film is available in an excellent DVD release by the Criterion Collection.  Be sure to check out Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince’s insightful commentary track.