HIGH AND LOW (1963) is a must-see for Kurosawa enthusiasts, Mifune fans and lovers of the detective story.
HIGH AND LOW begins with suspense, rapidly deepened by serious character portrayal. We quickly care about the people in this story of a kidnapping and a demand for ransom. Spoiler ahead: The kidnapper grabs the child of an industrial manager at odds with his fellow managers who hope to oust him from their shoe-making enterprise through their control of a sufficient percentage of stock. The kidnapper makes his move and a huge financial demand (30 million yen) just as our manager (Toshiro Mifune) is using all his financial resources to up his own percentage of shares and wrest control of the company. The kidnapper grabs the wrong kid, carrying off the chauffeur’s son.
In all this first part of HIGH AND LOW, which looks like a play but moves fast, the director’s delight in composing for the Tohoscope screen is equal delight for the viewer. Every composition within the frame and each movement within the frame have precision and beauty and meaning. The many characters in each shot lead us, as would a Greek chorus, to observe family dynamics and to witness, feel and assess Gondo’s struggle, the struggle of his once-loyal assistant and that of the chauffeur-father Aoki, broken, humble and pleading (splendidly played by Yutaka Sada). Gondo at first decides against using his money for ransom when he finds it is not his own child being held. He needs all that money immmediately for his planned financial coup. His moral battle affects all those characters within the frame as some of them seek to affect him.
The second part of HIGH AND LOW shifts gears and becomes what genre readers call a police procedural. The screenplay is, after all, adapted from a novel by Ed McBain. The detective work by the large investigative squad is filled with intriguing details of method and illustrated by vignettes of Japanese social life and social strata, delightful illustrations of how things work (trolleys, commuter trains, incinerators) and observations of the character traits of the investigators themselves.
The third part of the film centers on capturing the kidnapper through a drug sale. Despite additional keen societal observation (the withdrawing addicts literally climbing the wall of heroin alley will remain with you always), this third section is too long and drains some of the accumulated suspense. At 142 minutes, the film grows extended here but (Spoiler alert!) still has a wallop to deliver as Gondo and kidnapper Takeuchi face each other in the visitors’ room in prison.
Mifune does not have all that much screen time in the second two parts, but throughout the film his characterization is excellent. HIGH AND LOW is world-class suspense with dimensional characters oustandingly portrayed. It remains real but sophisticated all the way to its close. Kurosawa offers no sentimentaliztion of our hero’s moral growth and no simplistic reunion with his loving but doubting family.
Repeating: A must for Kurosawans, for Mifune-ians and for lovers of cinema and dynamic composition. HIGH AND LOW is periodically shown on Turner Classic Movies and is available in many film catalogs.
High and Low
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