Monday, August 05, 2013

Catching Up With The Classics: Akira Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW (1963)

Since I took July off from babbling ‘bout film to work on a book project (and go on vacation with my wife in Virginia), I thought instead of writing about some big new movie at the multiplex, I’d jump back into the blogosphere with a post about a classic I just caught up with. A black and white Foreign one at that.

I’ve seen a bunch of the films of the late great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) over the years, but somehow never got around to seeing his 1963 thriller of sorts HIGH AND LOW until now. 

A co-worker spoke of re-watching it recently and I made the mental note to put it in my Netflix queue. So glad that I did because it had me from the get go with Toshirô Mifune’s intense performance as an executive for a shoe manufacturing company trying to fight off his colleagues attempts to cut costs and quality in a starkly shot opening scene.

With 16 films under the director, Mifune was to Kurosawa what Humphrey Bogart was to John Huston, or Robert DeNiro to Martin Scorsese, but the duo are more known for their Samurai movies than their modern day dramas like this one that they made together between 1948-1965.

The Hitchcockian HIGH AND LOW (aka “Heaven and Hell”) can be broken down into 3 acts. The first is set mostly in the interior of Mifune’s luxurious mansion overlooking the city of Yokohama and concerns the tycoon dealing with the kidnapping of his chauffeur’s son. The kidnappers meant to abduct Mifune’s son, but the kids who were playing Cowboys and Indians,” or more accurately “Sheriffs and Outlaws,” had switched outfits.

In long unbroken widescreen shots a stressed-out Mifune wrestles with whether or not to pay the huge ransom (30 million yen). Paying it would ruin him as he just mortgaged his house in order to gain more control of his company, but not paying could destroy his reputation and his business could suffer greatly.

The Chauffer (Yutaka Sada), and Mifune’s wife (Kyōko Kagawa) beg Mifune to pay the ransom, while a dapper police detective (Tatsuya Nakadai) suavely oversees the situation. Mifune gives in and arranges to make the exchange for the child. Turns out the kidnapper has cleverly planned to have Mifune throw the money in 2 suitcases out of the window of a moving train, with the boy being released near the next stop. “Damn clever” Nakadai says.

The train sequence, which heightens the tension of the movie greatly, begins the second act. The film’s police procedural p.o.v. intensifies with the investigation into the kidnapping leaving no stone unturned. The cop that the Dude in THE BIG LEBOWSKI asks about leads may have joked sarcastically about detectives working in shifts at the crime lab, but here the police are definitely putting in overtime studying films, photos, and even the kid’s crayon drawings to close this kidnapping case.

The third act consists of the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki) being identified by the police and getting caught in their trap involving a heroin deal. I recently read a rant by a filmmaker about how framing something or somebody dead center is boring, but Kurosawa’s cameras, manned by cinematographers Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito, keep Yamazaki in the middle of many shots as he makes his way through the dark streets, and it’s never not visually interesting.

In one shot a mirrored wall in a crowded club is shown, seemingly at an angle, but as the camera pans across the room we see that the wall itself was slanted, and Yamazaki in a strikingly bright white collared shirt and shades again enters in the center. 1995's SIN CITY (Dirs. Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino) featured a nod to this imagery via Elijah Wood's psychopathic character, Kevin.

During this sequence, the policemen following him are demoted to supporting players in the shadows, with the antagonist eerily commanding all of our attention.

These scenes also show how Westernized Japan had become in the early ‘60s. The sight of drunk patrons dancing to surf guitar music blaring from a jukeboxes in noisy bistros isn’t that far removed from background fodder in a MGM Elvis movie from the same era.

HIGH AND LOW is a multi-layered story told straight with little in the way of artistic flourishes and it’s all the better for it. The non-flashy clarity of the screenplay by Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima, and Eijirô Hisaita (based on the 1959 novel “King’s Ransom” by Ed McBain) makes for a very satisfying watch.

As densely detailed as it is, HIGH AND LOW ultimately boils down to a concept as simple as its title. “The kidnapper is right,” says one of the investigators looking at Mifune’s mansion from the poverty stricken streets below.

“The house gets to you…as if it’s looking down on you.” This view is confirmed by Yamazaki meeting face to face with Mifune in the final scene.

“Why should you and I hate each other?” Mifune asks. “My room was so cold in winter, and so hot in summer I couldn’t sleep. Your house looked like heaven to me, high up there,” Yamazaki explains. “That’s how I began to hate you. That gave me a purpose in life. It’s interesting to make fortunate men unfortunate.”

Unsurprisingly, there has been talk of remaking this film. Scorsese, Mike Nichols, and Chris Rock (!) have expressed interest in taking it on, but if you haven’t seen it, don’t wait for that to happen. Folks with aversions to old black and white subtitled films should get over it and queue this one up (or purchase the fancy Criterion Collection edition). It’s another in a long line of classic Kurosawa keepers.

More later...

1 comment:

Wes said...

Great way to get back into reviewing! I absolutely love this movie & it's great to see a fellow fan out there. The shots inside the mansion are so well composed it's amazing.