This is the ear of actor Nobuo Kaneko. The image appears prominently early on in the 1960 Japanese film noir Intimidation (ある脅迫), directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara. What’s shown here is what fills the entire screen. The moment at which this frame appears is a dream sequence. A senior bank employee named Takita, played by Kaneko, has fallen asleep at home after a boozy farewell party. His dream is, in fact, Takita thinking through a heist he intends to perpetrate — a robbery of his own bank. The anxious close-up of the ear occurs as the robbery sequence reaches its climax, and just as the dream is interrupted.
In the dream, Takita hears an alarm followed by sirens — and then the audio transitions to a phone ringing. (According to the Criterion Channel, which is how I watched Intimidation, this occurs precisely 18 minutes into the film, which is just under one hour and six minutes long.) Takita is frantically trying to open the bank’s door to escape. He awakens only to realize it’s been a dream all along. The audience realizes at the exact same moment that he does that he hasn’t been pulling off the desired heist, but merely dreaming about it, subconsciously enacting an imaginary trial run. Narratively, this is an ingenious way to perform the classic heist story technique, in which we experience the crime twice: first as a blueprint for the operation, then as the actual event, one that almost always goes wrong.
In the Intimidation dream sequence, we don’t actually see Takita’s face. His identity is hidden from us. Perhaps if Takita had seen his own face in the dream, he’d have woken up. Perhaps the anonymity in the dream simply reflects his underlying desire for the incident to take place without any blunders. Either way, the focus on the ear — and that sweaty brow — just as the sound of reality (the phone) seeps into the dream state (as an alarm) is an indelible moment. In effect, the alarm is an alarm, one that alerts Takita’s sleeping brain to the fact that the phone is ringing. Later on in the film when Takita actually robs the bank, a sonic alert does go off, but it is neither a phone nor the sort of alarms he heard in his dream. It’s simply an alarm clock.