The Quiet Duel is not one of director Akira Kurosawa’s major works. Most reviewers treat it as a lamentable, melodramatic footnote in his career, but I don’t think that’s fair.
Unlike No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), which I think all but the most dedicated Kurosawa completists can skip, The Quiet Duel is worth seeing at least once if you’re a Kurosawa fan. It also functions as a thematic bridge between two of Kurosawa’s major early works, Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949).
Like both of those films, The Quiet Duel pairs two of the director’s most dependable stars: Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura. It shares with Drunken Angel the theme of a doctor who struggles with his own conscience, and it presages the major theme of Stray Dog — two young men who face the same difficult circumstances but who make very different ethical decisions.
Mifune and Shimura are always interesting to watch when they’re on screen together, and if The Quiet Duel is their least interesting pairing in Kurosawa’s body of work, it’s only because most of their appearances together for Kurosawa were in films that are all-time classics.
The Quiet Duel (or The Silent Duel, as it’s also translated), is based on a play by Kazuo Kikuta. Mifune plays Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki, a young physician who contracts syphilis when he cuts himself while performing surgery in a field hospital during World War II.
After the war, he returns to work with his father, Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki (Shimura). Kyoji rejects his fiancée, Misao (played by Miki Sanjō), without an explanation. He treats himself with Salvarsan in total secrecy. (Salvarsan is the trade name for arsphenamine, the first effective treatment for syphilis.) And he struggles with his sexual desire and romantic longing, both of which he completely stifles so he won’t infect anyone else with his malady.
Later in the film, he again crosses paths with the man he operated on during the war. Unlike Kyoji, this man treats his syphilis as a trifling matter, and doesn’t care who else he infects (his wife is pregnant). We’ll see this moral theme again in Kurosawa’s next film, Stray Dog (1949), in which Mifune plays a young police detective whose gun is stolen. The “stray dog” of the title is a young man who suffered the same indignities and deprivations as Mifune following the war. Unlike Mifune, he chose to take his pain out on the world, and goes on a crime spree with Mifune’s gun.
Most of The Quiet Duel is pretty stagey, and the story is melodramatic. But when Mifune finally lets loose, he lets loose as only he could, and it’s something to behold. And while the film isn’t a great showcase for Kurosawa’s directorial talents, there are a few scenes — especially the surgery sequence that opens the film — that rank among the best work he did.