Fire Line (Hiromichi Takebe, 1961)

Eclipse LogoWritten by Teruo Ishii and director Hiromichi Takebe, Fire Line broke new ground for the Line series, leaving tales of underworld prostitution rings and focusing on the double dealings and triple crosses of rival gangs over 100 pistols sold by a shady black market arms dealer.  In this twisty tale of gangland betrayal, a young sharpshooter and his friend are enlisted by a gang to help steal the guns but are then betrayed and blamed for the heist by the gang’s leader.  The arms dealer, the sharpshooter, and the boss’s girlfriend concoct a plan to rob the gang and escape to South America, but members of the mob have other plans.  The bankruptcy of Shintoho studios marks Fire Line as a premature conclusion to the series and Takebe’s only directorial effort, but the film remains a canny and faithfully hardboiled approach to noir sensibilities.

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Hiromichi Takebe’s Fire Line often finds itself as the forgotten child in the Line series.  Without Teruo Ishii directing it and having cast off the usual subject matter of investigating journalists and women forced into the sex trade by greedy and degenerate men, Fire Line is frequently treated as an aberration from the Line series’ established form and therefore something to be ignored or disregarded.  Ishii is not absent from the film however, having co-written it with Takebe, and the film remains nonetheless a part of the series.  It is only by the bad luck of Shintoho’s bankruptcy that further Line films were not made and that the different direction taken by Fire Line was not elaborated upon.  Had the studio held on long enough to grind out a couple more films in the series, perhaps the popular assessment of Fire Line would be positive and discussion of it more engaged.

Teruo Yoshida returns as Shin’ichi, a crack shot with a pistol, who, with his scam-artist buddy Kenji (Line series regular Yôji Naruto), meet a gang boss’s girl by chance and look to ingratiate themselves by helping the gang pull off a heist against the rival Kajikawa mob.  With the pair’s help, the gang steals a lot of 100 pistols auctioned off by a black-suited arms dealer, unintentionally preventing the dealer, Kuroiwa (Shigeru Amachi), from stealing them back himself.  In the wake of the theft, Shin’ichi and the boss’s girl, Yumi (Yôko Mihara), fall for each other, boss Shigemuni (Jun Tazaki) pins the heist on Shin’ichi and Kenji, and Kuroiwa enlists Shin’ichi to help him raise some final additional funds to escape to South America by stealing back the guns from Shigemuni.  With the help of Yumi, Shin’ichi and Kuroiwa trace the guns back to a warehouse where they find Kenji being beaten by the gang.  They save him by striking a deal with Shigemuni’s lieutenant Nakamoto (Masahiko Naruse) to kill his boss in exchange for the guns.  Revealing Nakamoto’s plot to Shigemuni, Fire Line‘s characters converge once again at the warehouse where many die and a bittersweet ending is reached.

Takebe’s entry into the Line series feels somewhat conventional alongside Ishii’s earlier entries, lacking the lurid spectacle of drugs and prostitution and the individual flourishes of Black Line‘s dark, angular cinematography, Yellow Line‘s sickly palette, and Sexy Line‘s crowded locations.  Yet, despite its rather by-the-numbers approach, Fire Line remains an effective and tense crime story.  Shin’ichi is arguably Teruo Yoshida’s best performance in the series, breaking free of the boy scout reporters he played in earlier films and accommodating fairly well the air of danger and violence surrounds his ambitious young sharpshooter.  Shigeru Amachi’s return is welcome as the actor’s strangely angular face and predatory smile perfectly embodying his seasoned black marketeer’s comfort with risk and his familiarity with treachery.  Yôko Mihara’s appearance is always appreciated, even if she has little to do in Fire Line except offer a tragic conclusion, and a cameo by Jun Ôtomo as something other than the film’s corrupt boss or middleman is a nice touch.  Fire Line is an enjoyable noir-ish excursion and the completist in us cannot help but require this final film in the series to round out a possible Eclipse set.

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