SNOW TRAIL. Toho Company, Japan, 1947. Original title: Ginrei no hate. Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Kosugi. Director: Senkichi Taniguchi. Currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

   Fairly early on in Snow Trail, the viewer learns that there are three escaped bank robbers and that they’re hiding out somewhere in remote, cold mountainous terrain. Enter what appears to be an urban police detective who is working with local authorities to apprehend the men.

   And then the movie shifts to a resort where two employees, who heard on the radio that one of the fugitives is missing several fingers, are seen scheming as to how they can get one of the resort’s guests to remove the glove he wears all the time.

   At this point, it’s not clear whether the movie is going to be a police procedural, a film noir, or something else entirely. Indeed, it takes about another thirty or forty minutes for the central story of the movie to come into its own and by that time, you’re hooked.

   After one of the three fugitives purportedly dies, the remaining two men must struggle to survive amidst the cold, desolate landscape. Luckily for them, they find shelter in a mountain cabin inhabited by an old man, his granddaughter, and a mountaineer who is literally weathering an oncoming storm with them.

   It’s then when the two men, portrayed by Japanese film legends Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune, begin to clash. The older of the two criminals, Nojiro (Shimura) becomes wistful and introspective. Although it’s never made absolutely explicit, one senses that he is beginning to have deep, painful regrets about his life choices.

   Eijima (Mifune), on the other hand, grows more cold, more divorced from humanity, and increasingly willing to utilize violence. There’s a chillingly effective scene in which Ejima barks at his erstwhile colleague for merely enjoying listening to music. He’s the character who has gone spiraling downward into darkness.

   In many ways, Snow Trail has all the hallmarks of film noir and was clearly influenced by American crime films. But it’s also an existentialist work and a redemption story. The movie is fundamentally about one man, alone against a giant landscape of mountains and sky, who realizes too late that he has fundamentally wasted his life on crime rather than on family and connection to nature.

   Compared to Japanese crime films of the 1960s and 1970s, this little-known film may not be particularly compelling cinematically. But it’s a solidly constructed work of Japanese postwar cinema that deserves a look.