January 7, 2009

High and Low

1963 film. Aka HEAVEN AND HELL. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni. Based on the novel 87TH PRECINCT: KING'S RANSOM by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter).

Related Reviews:
- The 1959 novel 87TH PRECINCT: KING'S RANSOM.

In a bold move to surpass his rivals at National Shoes, executive Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) mortgages off everything he owns so he can control enough stock to name himself president, thus preventing the company from selling out and producing cheap knock-offs. Just as he writes out the check for the final deal, he gets a call. His son has been kidnapped. The ransom is more than enough to financially destroy his future, but he'll pay it. He has to. This is his child, after all.

But then his boy walks into the room and everyone realizes that the wrong kid, the son of Gondo's lowly chauffeur, has been snatched by mistake and the certainty of whether or not the executive will ruin himself for the life of another man's child is up in the air.

I'll be honest, I had my concerns about the film right up front. While it initially follows the novel quite closely, there's a sudden change that I don't entirely buy at first, and Kurosawa's love of dynamic shot set-ups leaves much of the sequence feeling too forced and stagy, which isn't helped by setting it in a single room.

But then we hit the hour mark and everything explodes into brilliance as Kurosawa leaves the idea of an adaptation behind, resolving the kidnapping less than half way through the film in a way that allows him to offer his own spin on the story. Suddenly that questionable change makes sense as we see the financial and public consequences of Gondo's act, and the confined set of a living room cuts away to an entire city with undercover cops drifting among the populace, trying to find the identities of the culprits before they can get away with their crime. This is where Kurosawa shines, digging deep into the dedication of the police force as they find stray little threads that start to intertwine into a wonderful web of evidence, while also showing us the sometimes hellish sights of poverty and despair, all looming beneath the mountain on which Gondo's wealthy estate resides.

And this division in the film marks an interesting change-over of leads. We, of course, get Mifune up front, ably pulling off the ethical conflict within Gondo. In the second half, he steps back and Kurosawa's new rising star, Tatsuya Nakadai takes the lead as Chief Inspector Tokura. He does a fabulous job of conveying a professional cop who, despite lacking much personal depth, naturally stands out as leader among the dozens of officers (many of whom are Kurosawa regulars) reporting to him on their varied investigations.

If you can make it through the heavy-handed moments of the still-watchable first hour, you'll find one hell of a rich procedural thriller from a director still on the high end of his career peak. Definitely worth a watch.


For more information about the film, visit its IMDB and Wikipedia pages. The flim can be purchased as a special edition DVD, or as a bare-bones DVD in a boxset of 25 Kurosawa films.

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