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  • Benjamin May

High and Low (1963) Review

Kingo Gondo is a wealthy executive at the National Shoes company in Yokohama. He aims to make affordable, sturdy footwear for the masses. His co-workers opt instead for those of the cheap, low-quality variety that will wear easily, meaning they will need to be replaced often. In secret, Gondo organizes a leveraged buyout of the company, mortgaging all he has to afford it. However, just before he makes the deal, the son of his chauffeur is kidnapped and held for ransom. It's clear the kidnappers intended to kidnap Gondo's child, and he feels just as responsible as if they had. Will the police- led by the capable Inspector Tokura- be able to find the child and solve the extortion plot before it's too late?

Loosely based on Ed McBain's novel 'King's Ransom,' Akira Kurosawa's 'High and Low' is a powerful police procedural that will keep viewers' attentions held rapt from start to finish. With a screenplay by Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima and Eijirô Hisaita, the film examines many themes in an eloquent manner, including those of honor and morality. It also paints a picture of then-contemporary Yokohama as a city built upon an endemic inequality between the classes, and shows how easily the disenfranchised and impecunious can fall into a life of crime.

'High and Low' is a tense thriller that feels most authentic. Kurosawa shows us with precision the minutia that the police engage in, how they build their case and begin scavenging the city for clues to the kidnapping. Slowly, but steadily, headway is made, and Kurosawa doesn't rush the procedural process of the investigation. This is not to say the film is in any way slow-moving or drawn out, because the opposite is the case: 'High and Low' rockets along at a brisk pace, feeling all too short at 143 minutes; if anything.

The film reunites Kurosawa with cinematographers Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saitô, whose camera-work and shot construction is mightily impressive. 'High and Low' has an assured visual style, and the utilization of shadows is most striking. There is one instance of color being used in the film, which is to great effect; while the remainder of the black and white cinematography is rich and textured. Though he made some beautiful looking pictures in his time, the naturalism and style with which 'High and Low' is captured makes it a standout in Kurosawa's filmography.

As do the terrific, power-house performances from his cast. His second-to-last collaboration with the incomparable Toshirô Mifune, here his original muse stars as Gondo, giving a masterful performance of much restraint. Mifune creates in Gondo an initially fastidious character, whose evolution over the course of the film feels both authentic and subtle. Often, when one thinks of Kurosawa and Mifune, the Samurai pictures spring first to mind; though their work together here is just as impactful and entertaining as any of those earlier films.

Co-starring as Inspector Tokura is Kurosawa's second muse, the great Tatsuya Nakadai. Always a commanding presence on screen, he plays Tokura as a charming, determined detective who will do anything to catch his man. Though he has less emotional volubility to exhibit in the role, Nakadai performs just as strongly as Mifune; and neither man overshadows the other. Additionally, in a small but pivotal role stars Tsutomu Yamazaki, who showcases much depth and range, leaving a lasting impression on the viewer.

Thrilling from beginning to end, Akira Kurosawa's 'High and Low' is a brilliant piece of film noir, featuring an interesting examination of class at its center. Boasting stunning cinematography, as well as strong performances from all in the cast, there is little fault one can find with it. If you haven't seen it before, and you're a fan of police procedurals, they look no further: for 'High and Low' is a masterpiece of the genre.


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