High and Low (1963) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

High and Low (1963)

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Danny INDIFFERENTKidnapping, murder, drugs, corporate infighting, and the sordid troubles of a very rich man. Before this was five nights a week on network TV, there was still room in the film world to try and navigate the twists and turns of moral boundaries on the big screen.

Akira Kurosawa's thriller High and Low combines these sordid stories into a thrilling moralistic package, one that asks the audience what they would risk on or against their own soul. At least, that's the first hour. After that... well, stuff happens.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The film opens with Kingo Gondo (the ever powerful and iconic Toshiro Mifune, probably the only man who could make a character with that name believable) negotiating with three businessmen. The three men are trying to convince Gondo to help force out 'The Old Man' who runs the company so that they can make cheaper, more profitable shoes. Gondo disagrees with their proposal, and admits that he find's The Old Man's more ugly but practical shoe distasteful as well.

The three men, disgusted, vow to vote him off of the board and depart. Gondo begins to cackle, as he's finally putting the final pieces of his plan together... in a few short hours, he will put all of the money he has and a few considerable loans to buy a controlling interest in the company. His wife and his adviser share in his good news, and they rejoice as Gondo's and his chauffeur's sons run outside to play.

Kurosawa treads deathly serious for the business negotiations, and Gondo's triumph works for both the character and the audience; he's almost instantly likable as a driven and decisive manager. That his machismo arises from the arena of women's shoes is played as a wink to the audience before the real seriousness begins.

In short time it's discovered that there's been a kidnapping. A threat over the phone sends the Gondos into a tizzy, only to be slightly relieved as they find that it wasn't their son that's been kidnapped, but the chauffeur's. The riveting first hour plays out as Kingo has to debate with his wife, his business associate, and a cadre of dedicated policemen over how to approach this. Does he turn over the money, likely to lose it and ruin his livelihood, or does he refuse, and leave the killer with an unrelated child to possibly murder or, hopefully, release?

The tensions are high as everyone plays through the fascinating dilemma, each with a stake in the result. Kurosawa brilliantly ratchets the tension up with beautifully composed and claustrophobic shots as the entire first hour of the movie takes place inside the sparse living room that looks out onto the city.

If I sound really enthusiastic about this part of the film, it's because it eventually ends, and the movie takes a sudden turn into a procedural as the police work to find the kidnapper. The film kind of snaps here, as the audience loses track of Gondo and we're instead treated to a good twenty minute scene where the police go around the room and talk about all of the leads they've got.

We then follow through their luck as they find the kidnapper for the second hour of the film, and after that we finally get ahold of Gondo again as he and the kidnapper finally meet face to face. The motivation for the kidnapping is threadbare and the final confrontation too punctual to be effective. We lost Gondo about an hour earlier, and by this point have lost all the emotional investment in him.

I can understand the audience wanting the kidnapper found, but with such a tense and incredible opening act, the second half, which feels a step above an average "Law & Order" episode, was bound to disappoint. As soon as Gondo is gone, the excitement goes with him.

But for the first half, man, what a film.

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High and Low (1963)

High and Low is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection and on Netflix Instant.

Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima
Starring ToshirĂ´ "Motherfucking" Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai

Posted by Danny

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