High and Low, 1963, directed by Akira Kurosawa, written by Eijirô Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni, loosely based on Hayakawa Shobo's translation of Evan Hunter's novel King's Ransom, which Hunter wrote under the pen name Ed McBain. Now those are some complicated writing credits.
A space alien who knew nothing about film history and decided to learn it by watching the Criterion Collection would come to the conclusion that Toshirô Mifune was one of the best known actors in the world. He's been in five of the twenty-one movies I've watched so far: Seven Samurai, Musashi Miyamoto, Duel at Ichijoji Temple, Duel at Ganryu Island, and now High and Low. Don't get me wrong: I love Toshirô Mifune. But Criterion loves him even more.
The other four movies I've seen Mifune in are all period pieces where he plays a samurai. So it's kind of a shock to see him in a three-piece suit. He plays Kingo Gondo (Douglas King in the original novel), a wealthy shoe executive (no, really!). The premise is great; Gondo has a chauffeur whose young son is friends with his son. At the beginning of the movie, Gondo has borrowed against all his assets for a complicated business scheme whereby he will gain majority control of the company he works for. So he has a great deal of cash, all of it earmarked for saving his job and crushing his business rivals. Unfortunately for Mr. K., just as he's dispatching a junior executive with the money to make the stock purchase, he receives a phone call from a man who says he has kidnapped his son. He wants 30 million yen, of the 50 million Kingo has just pulled out. Kingo and his wife decide to pay it, and Kingo says that no amount of money is too much to pay for his son's life (he doesn't say this to the kidnapper, but he does say it in his chauffeur's hearing). Just then, Kingo's son walks into the room. Guess which chauffeur's son the kidnapper has grabbed by mistake? Guess who is suddenly much less willing to put up the ransom?
The first forty minutes or so of this movie are very tightly constructed. Kurosawa keeps everything in the same few rooms of Kingo's house (you could do this part as a play). I'd love to read an English translation of the screenplay because this part of it is a model of narrative compression. Some of the phone conversations between Kingo and the kidnapper are played out on screen (with police officers running everywhere trying to get a trace on the call, &c.). Some of the conversations you only hear as tape recordings when the police are playing them back, discussing them later. There's not a wasted second. And the sequence where Kingo pays the ransom (it takes place on the bullet train) is a wonderful set piece.
Unfortunately, after the Kingo pays the ransom (under protest) and the kid is returned, the movie kind of falls apart for me. The rest of the movie is about the police trying to get Kingo's money back as his world falls apart. It's all right, but without the ticking-clock of the kidnapped kid, it doesn't work as well. And some sequences didn't work for me at all: there's a long police procedural scene that falls flat. Structurally (and here I mean the internal structure of the sequence, not how it fits into the movie), it's a good idea; they have an intelligence briefing covering different investigative routes the police are taking. As each cop describes the lead he's been following, Kurosawa cuts from the briefing room to the cops investigating. It's not quite Law and Order, but it's the same focus on police grunt work that's made Dick Wolf a very rich man. But the sequence is fifteen minutes long and feels like it's an hour. What's more, none of the leads they're following pan out. So you get a good feeling for unrewarding police work, I suppose, but it totally kills the momentum Kurosawa has built up to that point.
The end sequence is interesting; the camera follows the kidnapper through the slums of Yokohama as the police close in (it's actually a little more complicated than that). The killer doesn't get any dialogue here, and he wears mirrored shades. Which kind of reminds me of this other movie I saw the same weekend. Let's compare:
Akira Kurosawa's High and Low
Akira Kurosawa's High and Low
NOT Akira Kurosawa's High and Low.
Of course, Kevin looks that way in the books, so I guess Frank Miller is more the person who did the ripping-off. But it's even the same haircut. The stills don't do the similarity justice, because you can see an actual reflection in the glasses. A lot of the time in High and Low, the kidnapper is lit so the lenses are just as white as Kevin's in Sin City.
Some of the stuff in the "Low" section of the movie is really bizarre; there's a scene where the kidnapper pulls off a big heroin deal while frantically go-go dancing with his dealer (again, no dialogue). And there's a surprisingly scuzzy scene in a house full of heroin users. But there's nothing as tight as the first forty-five minutes in the movie's later scenes.
One more thing. Towards the end, I was expecting one more twist (Kingo set himself up! The police are in on it! It was all a dream!) and it never came. I don't think the movie really needed it, but it occurred to me how much I've been conditioned to want one last, overwhelming twist. I think a lot of scripts sell these days because they've got that, whether it fits the movie or not. Exhibit A is The Upside of Anger, where the twist betrays everything the movie has spent so long getting the audience emotionally involved with. But you can bet that people reading the script didn't ask whether the twist made sense for the movie so much as they said to each other "Twist! Buy! Buy! Buy!"
- Only one random fact. As you can see from the stills above, High and Low is in 2.35:1. This aspect ratio first appeared in 1953 and was called, in its original incarnation, Cinemascope. In Japan, it was called"Tohoscope." Tohoscope! For other names for widescreen film formats, see here. My favorites: Super Technirama 70, SuperTotalscope, and best of all, Warwickscope. Because nothing says "widescreen grandeur" like "Warwickscope!"