A trio of bank robbers seeks refuge at a ski lodge, but as the staff grows increasingly suspicious and the police close in, they flee across the snow-blanketed mountain trail—where one bad step can (and does) cause a massive avalanche. Eventually, the thieves stumble across a remote inn, where a young girl’s innocence gradually thaws the cold heart of the gang’s eight-fingered leader (Takashi Shimura, redefining cool with a pair of sunglasses that rarely leave his face). Meanwhile, the greedy, volatile greenhorn (then-newcomer Toshiro Mifune, giving one of his more restrained performances) wants the resident mountain climber to guide him back to civilization—even if he has to force him at gunpoint.
It’s a recipe for a taut, suspenseful little crime thriller. Indeed, Akira Kurosawa’s screenplay finds tension in the simplest things (a gutted radio, a dead carrier pigeon), but the direction does it few favors. Senkichi Taniguchi is a decent enough craftsman, but he fails to elevate the material the way Kazuo Mori elevated Vendetta of a Samurai—the pacing just feels “off,” particularly in the early expository scenes (I can’t help feeling that, had he helmed the production himself, the notoriously meticulous Kurosawa would have whittled down a lot of the cops’ dialogue).
Ultimately, it is the superb performances that save Snow Trail: the redemption narrative allows Shimura to demonstrate his range and versatility, while Mifune proves that he is perfectly capable of oozing menace without growling and hopping around like a maniac. It’s far from flawless, but the chemistry between these actors (two of Japan’s finest) makes it well worth watching.