Thursday, May 10, 2012

High and Low

"Telephone: the Deadliest Game of All!"

High and Low has a bit of an odd start to it.  It begins with a room full of men debating the quality of women's shoes.  Sure, the men work for the imaginatively named National Shoes company --- "Japan's leader in shoe-iness" --- but very few films choose to open like that.  Well, at least few outside of the foot fetish sub-genre.
It's not pervy if you make them and can smell them whenever you want
Kingo Gondo (Toshirô Mifune) is the head of the shoe factory, and he refuses to bend to the wishes of his colleagues, who want to start making cheaper and more stylish shoes.  Since women treat shoes as an accessory, they argue, why not make prettier but shoddier products and maximize profits?  The others need Gondo's minority holding in the company to vote the Old Man (who is dedicated to sturdy but ugly shoes) in charge out, but Gondo refuses.  He won't side with them; he also won't side with the Old Man because the shoes need to be sturdy, but Gondo also wants them to be stylish.  The others threaten to vote Gondo out at the next owner's meeting, but he throws them out on their ears.  You see, Gondo has secretly been buying up shares in the company and, if his deal goes through tonight, he will own enough of the company to survive any votes of no confidence --- he'll have more shares than the others and the Old Man combined.  To do this, and do it secretly, Gondo has had to borrow against everything he owns.  It's a big bet, but Kingo Gondo is willing to bet on himself.  All he has to do is make the final purchase tonight, and everything will be set.  If he doesn't make the payment by the morning, he will be in the poorhouse within a few weeks.  And then the phone rings. 
"I don't our refrigerator running?"

A man claims to have kidnapped Gondo's son and demands an astronomical sum of money.  Even though paying the ransom will clearly ruin his career, what's a father supposed to do?  That question gets a little more complicated when Gondo's son walks into the room.  It seems that the kidnapper took the son of Gondo's chauffeur by accident.  Instead of letting the boy go or reducing the ransom, the kidnapper promises to kill the boy if the ransom is not paid in full.  Ruining your livelihood for your own flesh and blood is one thing, but ruining it for that kid who smells like milk is something else entirely.  What would you do?  Save the innocent and change your life, or risk the boy and succeed in your lifelong goal?
Or hide beneath a very short table?

Answering that question is only half the battle in High and Low.  In the first hour of the film, the camera doesn't stray from Gondo's living room as a moralistic play unfolds; Gondo's decision-making process involves speeches from his right hand man, his chauffeur, his wife, and a team of police officers called in to help catch the crook.  Once the camera leaves Gondo's home, though, the film takes on a very different tone.  At this point, it becomes a police procedural that delves into the steamy, drug-fueled city that Gondo's home overlooks.

The acting in High and Low is consistently good, although there are few standouts.  Toshirô Mifune plays the lead with a quiet intensity that contrasts sharply from his classic brash samurai characters.  His performance is almost entirely based on the decision-making process --- so there's not really a chance for little moments adding flavor to the character --- but I think he did a great job with what he had to work with.
Example: Mifune adds subtext by implying an absolute hatred for trains
Tatsuya Nakadai was solid as the lead police investigator.  Nakadai is a much better actor than he is given an opportunity to show here, but some of his trademark odd facial expressions show up from time to time.  While his part is one of a deducer and, therefore, a listener, he was interesting to watch thanks to his nonverbal acting skills.
Tsutomu Yamazaki was a pretty cool enemy in this story.  He didn't speak much, but this was a dastardly character and Yamazaki filled his nonspeaking scenes with foreboding and malice.  I would have liked to draw my own conclusions about him instead of having other characters call him a monster for every little thing he did, but that's a minor complaint.  Part of what made him so eerie was that the cinematographer was able to keep that eerie light reflection in his glasses as he stalked his prey.
Sunglasses, worn at night, so he can so he can...!
Those three really carried the film, but Kurosawa aficionados will recognize frequent collaborators Kyôko Kagawa and Takashi Shimura in small parts.  The rest of the cast was fine, mostly playing bit parts as members of the press and police force.

This is the first Akira Kurosawa film I have seen that was given a contemporary setting, and it was interesting to compare this with some of his samurai flicks.  The first thing I noticed was the theatrical acting in the first half of the film; oftentimes, characters that were not speaking stood off to the side and looked offstage, as if the speaking character was soliloquizing.  The second half of the film was a pretty good police procedural, free of melodrama and speeches.  Kurosawa is, in my opinion, at his best when he is taking advantage of a particular image.  In that regard, he did a great job with Kingo's house (inside and outside, as seen by the kidnapper) and the entire stalking scene with Yamazaki.  It was also an interesting stylistic choice to spend an entire hour in one room of one building and then run all over the city in the second half.  You can definitely argue that it ties into the symbolism of the title (which has its own fans and detractors; I'm not going to get into that), which provides an unusual insight into the hellish "low"-ness of the city slums.
"Low": a land of mirrors, rock music, and dancing

Kurosawa adapted the American novel King's Ransom, an Ed McBain 87th Precinct book, into High and Low.  I've never found anything terribly unique with McBain's work, so it's not terribly surprising that Kurosawa doesn't stick too closely to the source material here.  The script allows, in the first half, a story about corporate power plays to become a moral dilemma in an increasingly suffocating environment; the closest thing I have seen to this is Hitchcock's Rope, to give you a less foreign frame of reference.  That hour is great, with Mifune giving a perfectly contained emotional performance.  The second half of the film is a lot more interesting to watch, though.  Maybe it is the juxtaposition of a static room with a swirl of characters and locales, but the rest of the movie moves a lot faster than the set-up.  While this isn't the earliest example of a police procedural I have seen (that would be M), this is the earliest one I have seen that felt realistic.
Also worth noting: Criterion Collection cover art is awesome

Not everything in High and Low rings true today, though.  Some of the methods employed by the police force would be hilariously beyond belief in America; I can't believe a police force would hold a press conference to tell the press what they couldn't print, just as I can't believe a press corps that would all agree to publish a lie.  While Kingo's situation is sad, seeing him mow his lawn is not Bambi's-mom-getting-killed sad, I don't care how the other characters react.  Perhaps the oddest parts involved legal loopholes.  By kidnapping the wrong boy, the kidnapper could not be charged with extortion, even though he was demanding payment.  More disturbing was the official police argument that they should allow the kidnapper to commit more crimes (which he does) so they can nail him for bigger crimes that might carry capital punishment instead of just a measly five years for kidnapping.  Another thing that struck me as odd was how much the kidnapped child remembered of his drive with the kidnapper; I don't remember a thing if I'm a passenger, so I find it hard to believe that a not terribly bright (that's the impression I got) kid is going to be able to track himself like a hound dog.
If your GPS still has trouble pronouncing "spaghetti," you're in trouble

The good definitely outweighs the bad, though.  Solid acting and interesting direction make this a worthy watch for anyone, but the little things are what make this stand out; the pink smoke in a black-and-white film, the reflection on the sunglasses, the completely understandable moral dilemma, and the overall ending all combine to make this special.  The only thing that keeps me from absolutely raving about High and Low has very little to do with the film itself.  As good as this movie is, its best parts are as a police procedural, a genre that has been done to death for me.  If this was a novel concept for me, I would probably rate it a bit higher.  As is, I think it deserves a respectable

The villain's sunglasses naturally got me thinking of Corey Hart.  I had never watched the music video for this before, but it is a gem.  And by "gem," I of course mean "hilariously bad."  Enjoy.

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