The Stranger Within a Woman

Naruse’s admirable adaptation of Lebanese writer Edward Atiyah’s 1951 novel THE THIN LINE takes the director into film noir territory, with no adjustment to his worldview required. The protagonist Isao Tashiro (Keiju Kobayashi, in the last and most moving of his ten Naruse performances) is almost inaccessible to us for most of the film, hiding his paralyzing guilt at the impulse murder of the wife of his best friend Sugimoto (Tatsuya Mihashi, of EVENING STREAM and A WOMAN’S STATUS) behind a mask of silence. The story is imparted to us via the dialogue of supporting characters, though we understand quickly that the inert Isao holds the answers to our questions. Isao emerges from his psychic exile only when his need for atonement begins to surface, and he does not truly become articulate until that need becomes irrepressible. His increasingly self-endangering confessions – “I have something to tell you,” he begins each time – are handled with little dramatic fanfare, often dropping out of his mouth without warning; the absence of drama is appropriate to Isao’s mental state, as the confessions afford him no lasting relief.

Naruse and screenwriter Toshiro Ide jolt the film forward with sudden, uneasy transitions. Naruse often doubly conceals the emotionally inaccessible protagonist by facing him away from the camera: in a potent early sequence, Isao stares out a train window, his back to us, while Sugimoto wonders about his wife’s whereabouts, with the murderer ending the scene by saying idly “It’s starting to rain” – ushering in 30 screen minutes of rainy weather that end only when Isao divulges his secret. (Naruse used similar metaphorical rainy seasons in SPRING’S AWAKENING and OKUNI AND GOHEI.) The casual callousness of Isao’s family and co-workers about the sensational news story is the constant backdrop to his concealed anguish; even the seeming comedy relief of his cute children quarreling over a family trip is quickly absorbed into the film’s chill, as the kids naively ask questions about the murdered woman over the breakfast table. Unsuspected by the police, Isao is forced to leave Sugimoto’s apartment by shouldering between two detectives who have come to question Sugimoto: Isao’s discomfiture at the narrow passage creates a strange kind of comedy without laughter.

THE STRANGER WITHIN A WOMAN contains some of Naruse’s most beautiful images, starting with the striking deep-focus opening shot that tracks behind Isao on a busy city street, already signaling that our hero cannot be introduced to us. Throughout the film Naruse returns to long shots, often dominated by strong diagonal lines, that strike an ominous tone by framing too widely, isolating the subject more than is usual. In Isao’s two confessions of guilt to his wife Masako (Michiyo Aratama), Naruse opts for a striking depletion of decor: the first talk is by candlelight during a blackout, the details of the room concealed by the soft low-key lighting; the second is staged in a tunnel, with the blackness behind Isao broken only by the small white circle of the tunnel entrance in background. These scenes, which push against the constraints of the Academy screen ratio with their alternation of big closeups and extreme foreground-background oppositions, seem like a dress rehearsal for the dream project that Naruse mentioned to Hideko Takamine on the set of HIT AND RUN, in which events would have taken place entirely before a white curtain in an empty room.[1]

The unprepared viewer may be surprised to discover that THE STRANGER WITHIN A WOMAN has the same source material and plot as Claude Chabrol’s 1971 JUSTE AVANT LA NUIT (JUST BEFORE NIGHTFALL). Film history is no longer in its infancy, but when two of the world’s greatest directors faithfully adapt the same novel within five years of each other without it being common knowledge, it’s clear that a great deal of groundwork remains.[2] The conjunction is especially interesting in that Naruse and Chabrol are similar filmmakers in some ways: both have a flexible narrative intelligence and curiosity about a wide range of psychology. Chabrol’s better-known version of the story is more assertive and stylized, and has a tang of deadpan Buñuelian humor, with society’s representatives persistently refusing, in the name of kindness and forgiveness, to give the protagonist the punishment that he craves. And Chabrol obscures the end of the film rather than the beginning, the better to convey his discomfort at the bourgeoisie’s facility at ridding itself of troubling moral problems. Naruse’s relatively splashless but more existentialist approach seems at first less ambitious, but achieves an unsettling focus on Isao’s anguish that Chabrol elides. There is no equivalent in the Chabrol film for the terror of the scene where Isao arrives home at night, after yet another confession that brings him no peace, and suddenly vomits into the sink, with his Masako rubbing his back, able to deal only with his physical pain.

The story is built around a natural dramatic handoff: as Isao divulges his mystery and chooses his path, the narrative focus passes to Masako, whose desperation to protect her children from shame is at cross-purposes with her husband’s urge for atonement. To my mind, the film loses some of its power as it settles on Masako, whose overt emotionality, enhanced by a touch of expressionism in Naruse’s framing and lighting, isn’t as fascinating as the terrible containment of Isao’s pain. By contrast, Chabrol naturally creates mystery and complexity around the supporting characters who represent his protagonist’s social environment – perhaps Chabrol’s primary focus.

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[1] Bock, Mikio Naruse, 9.

[2] Chris Fujiwara’s reference to the Naruse-Chabrol connection in his 2005 Film Comment article “Mikio Naruse” is the earliest I could locate.