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This is one of those rare movies I had to watch twice to catch all the
and beauty of its construction, that is how sleek and polished this film is.
storyline is deceptively simple -- a businessman named Gondo is about to
control of the company he's worked in for years when he's told his son's
kidnapped. It turns out the kidnappers got his chauffeur's son by mistake,
they still want him to pay the ransom. If he does, he will be financially
he doesn't, he will be reviled. Which will he choose? This makes up the
half of the movie, culminating in a breathtaking scene on one of Japan's
trains. The second half is the police search for the kidnapper/murderer and
a case is built that will take him to the gallows.
Now this sounds like your typical cop thriller, the type Hollywood churns out with one hand tied behind its back, but Kurosawa makes it into a meditation on honor and decency, and on how one's choices can lead one to Heaven or to Hell in little steps that seem to be taking you nowhere. Gondo is an honorable man who worked hard to built himself a life of wealth and power. This is no small feat, considering Japan is not known as a society where one can easily change one's station in life, so this adds to his dilemma; he will not only lose his fortune, he will also lose his hard-gained power and respect in the business community, all for a child that is not even his. And not only will he lose but his own wife and son will, as well. But to NOT pay the ransom means he will lose everything in him that is human and decent, and his wife and son will suffer from that, too.
This is a big deal -- not just in Japanese society but in the world as a whole. It doesn't matter if you live in Nepal or Kenya or Argentina or New York City, when faced with the choice of losing your position in your society or losing your soul, which would you choose? And would you still make that choice knowing that even if the cops catch the bad guy, it will make no difference in your own circumstances? Just a glance at some of the recent stock scandals gives you a good idea of where most people fall in their choices. And even Ed McBain, upon whose novel this movie is based, knew how hard it would be to give up your world for your spirit; his businessman refuses to pay the ransom.
To me, this movie is Kurosawa at his best and most subtle. Every shot is composed and measured and done just right. Not all films have to have bombs exploding and chase scenes and people going "Boo!" to affect you; sometimes just a man riding on a train en route to what he knows will be a catastrophe to him and his world is enough to make you thank the heavens for a story well told.
"High and Low" is one of those deceptive detective-thrillers that sneak
in under your radar and grab you from behind with their storytelling
magic. It's proof positive of Kurosawa's mastery of film and all its
The story was adapted from an Ed McBain "87th Precinct" novel, "King's Ransom", and is really very simple. A successful businessman (Mr. Gondo) in the middle of a major deal is told his son has been kidnapped. All concerns about money fly out the window...until Gondo learns it was actually his chauffeur's son who was taken by mistake. Doesn't matter; the kidnapper still wants him to pay the ransom, even though it will bankrupt him. Will Gondo destroy his standing in the business world to save the life of a child that is not even his? Or will he just leave it to the police and fate to determine whether the child lives or dies? This makes up the first half of the film.
The second half deals with the search for the kidnapper and his accomplices, and it does not shy away from showing how dull and grueling good police work is. Step by step, the cops narrow their field of suspects and build their evidence to link their prey to murder as well as the kidnapping, meaning he would face execution. This makes up the second half of the film.
It helps to know that in the original story, the businessman refuses to pay the ransom but does help the police track down the kidnappers. It also helps to understand that in Japan, working your way up from making shoes and satchels by hand to being in a position where you could wind up owning the company is a HUGE accomplishment in a caste driven society. It means he is due additional respect, and this is what Gondo faces losing if he pays the ransom, which is far more important than the fact that he will be driven into bankruptcy.
From the first scene through an amazingly exciting section on a bullet train to the ending moments between Gondo and the kidnapper, Kurosawa shows exactly why he is a master of cinema. To take what is basically an episode of "Law and Order" and make it into a meditation on the meaning of life and evil is not something just any film school twit could do.
To me, the best moment on a human level comes when Gondo descends the stairs the morning after the kidnapping to explain to the police why he cannot pay the ransom for a child not even his. You can see the man realizing he is allowing himself go to hell in order to protect his family and station in life, and Toshiro Mifune underplays it beautifully...and Kurosawa lets it just simply happen. Wonderful.
THIS is the movie Mel Gibson's "Ransom" wishes it had been. something real and human and meaningful instead of merely kick-ass.
Ten out of ten stars.
High and Low, like Yojimbo and Throne of Blood, combines elements to
create something special while seeming rather routine- while Yojimbo
seems like a bad-ass samurai flick, it has the ingredients of a western
and satire, and Throne of Blood is a rather faithful, strange
adaptation of Macbeth in the guise of a warlord/samurai tale, High and
Low does a similar method. Akira Kurosawa, a filmmaker who gets film
buff's ears lit up at the mere mention of him, can usually be counted
on to keep a film interesting even if it may not be entertaining to
some of the crowd that likes a section of his movies or another
(there's usually a split between his samurai/medieval tales and epics,
and his dramas about the tragedies of ordinary people).
Here he finds a middle ground- the story is taken from a hard-boiled detective novel, the kind you could probably buy for a quarter or fifty cents in the old days- as he tells of two stories interconnected at the hip, both with detail a commercial Hollywood director would brush off. The first is of businessman Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, with his usual bravura presence, but with enough nuanced and quiet moments for two movies), who is about to close a deal to get the shoe company he's worked for for years, when he gets a phone call. There's been a kidnapping- not his son, but his chauffeur's by default. Backed into a corner without options, he gets together 30 million he really can't afford, and gives it to the kidnapper(s). The police, meanwhile, are not about to give up, and start digging for clues with an in-depth investigation that goes to probe every possibility: the chauffeur's son used as a partial witness with drawings; a car; a trolly car; all this leads to nothing and everything, leading to a third act that's as riveting as the first two.
Although the acting by everyone involved, cop characters included (Tatsuya Nakadai and Yutaka Sada are surprisingly good, the later even with limited screen time), Kurosawa keeps the film deliberately paced. Another director (more modern perhaps, but maybe not) might cut to the chase quicker, cutting past most of the investigation details, and even the emotional high-points in the first act. But Kurosawa is as interested in the nature and details of what the police do as he is with the compositions, which are constructed and framed as only an artist would do. The film creates a superb juxtaposition as well- Mifune's Gondo is enraged about what will happen with his money, but his morals stand above everything in his business affairs. Meanwhile, the cops here aren't cruel and unforgiving, but professionals trying to crack a case that the audience can hang onto. And then when the "seedy" underbelly of the city comes into view, it's looked on with at least some compassion by Kurosawa, and it's not too over-the-top.
If all your looking for is thrill after thrill, like in Sanjuro or even Hidden Fortress, look elsewhere- the violence, by the way, is kept to a low level for this one (it'd even be quite suitable for kids, if they don't mind the subtitles and quintessential intensity in the Japanese style of film acting). But for tight, often gripping suspense in the IL' 'whodunit' mystery tale, this is a keeper. Manipulative, perhaps, yet in the hands of a master it's an exemplary deal. And, in the end, it even provides a sad, existential kind of conclusion as good and evil become blurred as the kidnapper looks through glass at the disillusioned Gondo. It's one of the great endings in world cinema. A+
Toshiro Mifune is a businessman in a Japan that is on the brink of the
Economic Miracle of the Sixties. He is an honest man who loves his job as
shoe factory exec and is in a battle for corporate control against a pack
hyenas. He has mortgaged and borrowed and scraped to raise the money for
surprise coup when his son is kidnapped. But there is a major plot twist:
it is not HIS son that was taken but his son's playmate, the chauffeur's
and the ransom demanded is astronomical. If he pays he will lose
he has worked so hard for, but can he just sacrifice the chauffeur's child
because it is not his? From here on High and Low (perhaps better
as Heaven and Hell) is a police procedural based on an Ed McBain 87th
Watching this film I had a rare, almost unique, experience. I saw it on a fairly screen tv, letterboxed, in a darkened room. All the preceding conditions helped contribute to put me into an objective/subjective middle ground where I had the feeling of looking through a special visor that allowed me to see the world by means of an almost perfect film as if through the eyes of a cinematic genius who is in total command of his artistic means and in total command of his subject matter. I think the key to this experience is that while High and Low is interesting as human drama, it is yet peculiarly uninvolving emotionally but very involving cinematically. These distances are important in Kurosawa's films (he is high on my list of top ten directors but after Welles). In IKIRU you probably could not be more deeply involved emotionally, while in RAN there is nothing but relentless distance.
I think a good companion film to watch with this would be Kurosawa's earlier, looser, but much more individually tense, police film STRAY DOG (this time Mifune is the cop)
"High and Low" could be considered two movies. The first, "High" takes place in Kingo Gondo's (Mifune's) hilltop mansion. The crime occurs and what follows in the next hour is one of the most meticulous and brilliantly constructed film segments I have ever seen! The first half of the film could almost be considered theatre. It is static and deceptively simple but.....so intense! The ensemble acting is superb with Mifune a stand out as usual! Connecting these two movies is the train sequence. After the calculated intensity of the first part this scene comes at you like a sledgehammer! These four or five minutes are magnificent! So very exciting and so very quick it leaves you drained when it ends! "Low" begins with the hunt for the criminal. Only "Stray Dog" comes closer to capturing the cop's decent into hell. This last part of the film is fast and furious. We are no longer an observer. We have become part of the chase. First, we know who the criminal is. The police do not know and what follows is a fascinating puzzle being put together before our eyes! The last scene in the film is unexpected, deeply disturbing and left me numb and staring at the TV screen after the film had ended. Like Gondo we are left with the answers that we did not want to hear.
This movie was incredible!! They called it Film Noir but, my God, it's so much better than THAT-- This film out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock! And I'm a Hitchcock devotee. The issues Kurosawa wrestles with in this, and his other films; the ethic responsibility we have as humans, humanity vs. greed, crime and punishment are universally understood. Nothing he presents in black and white(except literally in the film stock)-- but every shade of grey is reflected on. The story unfolds slowly but contains many twists and turns as the viewer questions the motives of each character. It's not just the force of good against evil--but a question of what is morally right and morally wrong. The title itself clues the viewer in to the ambiguities of class, greed, and moral ethic.
This is one of the outstanding detective films. For me, the most
feature of this film is its architecture - the beginning is a long, static
set piece taking place in one room. however, about a third of the way
through the movie, it erupts into action, showing the resourcefulness of a
largely blue collar police force tracking a lone sociopathic criminal.
The film is a fascinating portrait of '60's Japan, but at the same time reveals its roots in Ed McBain's _King's Ransom_, from which it was taken.
This is one of those films which doesn't seem to age after several viewings. Especially affecting are the police detectives, whose proletarian roots contrast sharply with the cold insensitivity of the powerful corporate executives. But the police find a hero in Gondo, the rebellious general manager who stakes his entire fortune to rescue his chauffeur's son. The admiration that the police detectives feel for him is one of the key emotions in the film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A film of expert and scrupulous construction, High and Low demonstrates how a gifted filmmaker can control the structure of a film to enhance tension and narrative suspense. This film came at the zenith of Kurosawa's career and his skill is apparent in every shot; it is the work of a man who possesses complete mastery of his craft, and the movie is a masterpiece of 'constructional' film. Externally High and Low is about a kidnapping case, but as the title suggests, it is also about paradox, and relationship between polar opposites. The film can be enjoyed at both levels, either as a suspenseful police procedural, or as a meditation on opposite and similar existences. Because Kuroswa intertwines both, the film is extremely engaging. As in Ikiru, Kurosawa forces the viewer to abstain from empathizing with the characters, and it is through this method that the viewer can learn from them and appreciate the situations they exist in. One of the few films to create suspense through structure, High and Low deserves special notice. It is in this aspect that Kurosawa's expertise really shows. As in Ikiru, High and Low is broken into separate parts. The first trimester takes place entirely in a living room. The angled shots, intense close-ups, unchanging setting, and the viewers anticipations all contribute to an acute suspense that culminates in one of the most powerful transitions to ever take place in film. The transition scene occurs one a train, and the sense of motion and speed allow the viewer to experience tension and excitement merely through change in setting and suggestion of motion. Once the suspense is resolved the movie takes the form of a detective story, as the kidnapping culprit is sought after. The procedure is very interesting and the methods and processes of the detectives easily intrigue the viewer. The discovery of the culprit is accomplished through a brilliant sequence of editing, in which Kurosawa demonstrates his skills with one of the most fluid and seamless series of cuts in filmic history. Afterwards the detectives pursue the criminal and the film reaches conclusion with his capture. As always Kurosawa's shot composition is gorgeous, but in High and Low it also serves to support Kurosawa's affirmations about man. High angles and low shots combine with intense close-ups to elevate tension and remind the viewer of the films ever-present motifs. As previously stated the editing is worthy of special notice. The acting is superb, but not as prominent or vital to the film as others of Kurosawa. Sound is used carefully and successfully, and dialogue is minimal but effective. High and Low must be seen by Kurosawa devotees and fans of well-crafted cinema.
While I've seen HIGH AND LOW referred to as a "film noir," a "detective
drama," a "riveting game of cat-and-mouse," and so on into infinity, I
those terms tend to underestimate some very great films (such as this and
Kubrick's THE KILLING) and attempts to place them within boundaries over
which the expanse of a few powerful films such as these spill.
Indeed HIGH AND LOW is a story involving some familiar techniques from film noir; the detective story; and the hunter-and-hunted storyline, but it surpasses so many films that might be included in a list of fine films noires. It, in true Kurosawa style (one which Stanley Kubrick matched blow-for-blow, seeming to complement one another in their stunning gifts to the cinema), stands as a fable showing the differences and tensions which the coexistance of different classes creates.
Gondo, the rich on high, receives torment from those who live below him, being literally perched upon a hill, overlooking the city in a feudalistic way, in which the king's palace gazes down upon the serfs below. As the kidnapper says, "it's hot as hell down here. But you wouldn't know that, you have air conditioning." Thus we see the parallels pile upon each other: it is about class warfare but also shows the differences between heaven and hell; and Gondo makes both a descent and ascent simultaneously.
The plot is simple, but the truth is complicated, and I won't go into it here, but take my word as it stands: this is an amazing piece of film. See it now or regret it! Every Kurosawa film is sublime.
Even at nearly two and a half hours, this movie can rivet even casual movie-watchers. High and Low was adapted from the novel "King's Ransom" by Ed McBain, and though I haven't read the novel, the film stands up surprisingly in a completely different setting (Japan, as opposed to America). The script is great, the cinematography is outstanding, and if you're watching the Criterion print available on DVD you'll find yourself wondering if it was really made in 1963. This film scores an easy 10 with me. I can't think of a crime film that I enjoyed more than this one.
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