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Savant Short Review:

High and Low

High and Low
Criterion 24
1963 / b&w / 2:35 Tohoscope flat / 142m. / Tengoku to jigoku
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yutaka Sada, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Hiroshi Unayama, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Susumu Fujita, Kenjiro Ishiyama, Kyoko Kagawa, Takeshi Kato, Isao Kimura, Tatsuya Mihashi
Cinematography Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito
Production Designer
Art Direction Yoshiro Muraki
Original Music Masaru Sato
Writing credits Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni from the novel King's Ransom by Evan Hunter
Produced by Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Tomoyuki Tanaka
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



From his house overlooking Yokohama, hard-working up-from-the-factory shoe executive Kingo Gondo is directing a careful takeover of his company, which requires some fast moves with company shares and a large chunk of hard cash.  When his small son is kidnapped, Gondo becomes frantic, and agrees to pay the ransom ... only to find that the kidnapper snatched his chauffeur's son in error.  Gondo tries to harden himself but decency demands that he use the money to free the servant's child as if it were his own ... a sacrifice that impresses the detectives who mount an enormous campaign to catch the kidnapper.

High and Low (literally: Heaven and Hell) is a Kurosawa classic where Toshiro Mifune once again creates an unforgettable character, this time a decent businessman swimming with company sharks as vicious as those from Kurosawa's previous film, The Bad Sleep Well.  Stressing Gondo's commitment to quality by having him tear apart a proposed shoe model to show how shoddy it is, Kurosawa strands Gondo in one apartment for 40 minutes, waiting for news from the kidnapper as the tension mounts.  When the detectives are trying to find a way to hide a smoke bomb in the ransom valise, Gondo pulls out his old leatherworking tools and goes right to work, on the floor of his soon-to-be repossessed living room.

Kurosawa creates interest with strong contrasts.  After the static first section, the movie bursts into a frantic pace as an entire city is turned upside down by what seems an army of police agents.   The kidnpper Takeuchi (an incredibly progressive performance from Tsutomu Yamakazi) has commited his crime out of despair for inequities ... economics force him to live in a stinking, burning hellhole of crowded slum housing, all the while seeing Gondo's white house on the hill - the heaven he seeks to destroy.  Like Satan, Takeuchi is a rebellious angel, committing crimes and murdering out of a warped desire to overturn society.

Of course, that's not what happens.  Kingo Gondo weathers his Job-like trials, losing his desired company and all his belongings.  He has to start over, but with the spiritual backing of all who come in contact with him ... the cops, the public.  And his chaffeur, of course, will do anything for him, which causes complications as the detectives close in on their target.   Takeuchi, on the other hand, is driven to undertake new horrors, degrading himself even further.   There is an extended sequence in the back-alley drug world of Yokohama that is harrowing ... and very frank, far more explicit than drugs were treated in American films of the time, if portrayed at all.

This is a Kurosawa film but also a high-budget Toho film.  The impressive downtown set, all glass and showcases, is populated with lots of extras, including foreign sailors who seem to represent the ugliest Americans imaginable, lolling with the Japanese good-time girls, rocking out to the blaring bands.  Takeuchi is pursued through several levels of hell: indifferent hospital waiting rooms, downtown streets, nightclubs, the drug alleys ... and finally to a cottage on a gardened hill over the ocean.  It's as remote a Last Stop as the death shack in the film noir Criss-Cross.  Both seem to exist at the End of the Earth.

Masaru Sato's carefully-tracked score comes to horrific life in the depths of the city, enforcing an oppressive mood.  The wailing title tune sounds so much like the music in Roger Corman's X, (the man with the X-ray eyes), that Savant bets Corman sent his composer to rip off this great Japanese score from the man who wrote Yojimbo.

Delightful scenes include one where the police chief tells the press his entire strategy, and asks them to cooperate with them on a scheme to fool the kidnapper.  The 40 reporters agree, and you know that in the communal spirit of cooperation not one of them will exploit the situation (I imagine Japan is a different place now!).   Bullet trains were introduced to Western audiences in a riveting setpiece involving ejecting the ransom from an express going over 100 miles per hour.  Clever plotting brings Gondo and Takeuchi within a few feet of one another in one scene, and a pair of cars winding slowly through the hills, just missing one another, make for a very different kind of suspense scene near the end.

High and Low ends with a stark face-off across a wire screen that is so graphically piercing, it must have been the inspiration for everything ever done by Michael Mann.  A sheet of glass superimposes kidnapper over victim, suggesting their souls are equal even if they themselves are such polar opposites.  Not since I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang has a crime film ended with such an inhuman shriek, like the sound of a damned soul.

Criterion's DVD of High and Low looks far better than earlier laserdiscs, yet not as good as it should.  The Toho Scope image is not 16:9 enhanced and could be a lot more detailed  It's also rather on the dark and contrasty side.  Seeing how much trouble it is to get good elements from Toho, Savant will guess that this IS one of the earlier masters for television or laserdisc.  Note: I stand corrected: correspondents have informed me that the older Image laser is far worse-looking.  The English subtitles are removeable.  The famous part-color scene is intact, the one I described in an earlier article entitled Color Experiments.  The sound is bright and grating when it should be, but correspondent Stuart Galbraith has informed me that the original Japanese soundtrack was in multi-channel stereo.  He was able to get Criterion to make the new Hidden Fortress DVD in Perspecta-Stereo; High and Low was produced in Criterion's first year with DVD and does not profit from their later adoption of higher standards.  Also on the downside, the only extra is a short essay by Chuck Stephens on the paper insert ... not even a trailer this time 'round.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
High and Low rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: keep case
Reviewed: June 13, 2001

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