Yasuzo Masumura's 1962 spy thriller Black Test Car pits rival agencies against each other in an escalating game of theft, deceit, and sabotage. And no, the title isn't a mistranslation. The movie opens with the Tiger corporation suffering through a disastrous test run for its latest sports-car model, the Pioneer. Hiding in the brush, photographers from the Yamato corporation document the whole flaming mess, and leak the photos to the press. Reeling with shame, Tiger rushes to get an improved Pioneer to market, while simultaneously feeding misinformation to Yamato, and trying to figure out what the other car company is doing with its new sports model, so that its price can be undercut.
Throughout his career, Masumura displayed a flair for the ludicrous, and frequently skewered his countrymen's Westernizing pretensions by mocking the ways in which the new religion of business was costing them their souls. Black Test Car is largely effective because Masumura plays the story relatively straight. Shooting in stark black and white, in crowded rooms framed at cramped angles, Masumura keeps the mood tense and coaxes performances that are earnest without becoming campy. The boardroom chatter—along the lines of, "People want speed and luxury!"—coupled with the fast-paced editing make Black Test Car play like a darkly sophisticated live-action episode of Speed Racer.
There's a point to it, too. In the beginning, we're meant to think of Tiger as the "good" corporation, merely fighting off the unwarranted attacks of a sleazy competitor. But by the end of the movie, an executive at Tiger is urging his girlfriend to sleep with the enemy to get valuable information, and the company has become riddled with double-crossers, eager to sell out to Yamato even if it compromises driver safety. The surface drama of Black Test Car is all about tough guys in business suits flexing their corporate muscle in the name of unchecked capitalism. The real drama has to do with the way those businessmen draw ethical lines they insist they won't cross, mere days before they do.
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