Favorite Movies A-Z: High and Low

Kurosawa didn’t make that many contemporary films and the ones he did make are not so well remembered as the period samurai movies. This film is one of the films he made with a modern setting (though now 60 years out of date) and it’s in a genre that the casual movie fan probably doesn’t associate with him either: crime drama. The film is largely divided into two parts and while it is perhaps not quite as disjointed as something like Chungking Express, it is still almost two different, though related, short movies. At first it’s a thriller about a child being kidnapped before becoming a detective whodunnit in the second half.

Toshiro Mifune plays Kingo Gondo, an executive of a shoe company who is in the midst of a power struggle at his firm. He has leveraged himself to the hilt in order to raise the necessary cash to seize control of the company’s stock, secure his position and take over. Just as he is about to dispatch his deputy to make the final purchase, he receives a phone call. His son has been kidnapped and a huge ransom demanded. It appears that he will have to abandon his plans and ambitions and use the money to save his son.

As crushing as that is, the story takes a terrible twist when his son abruptly walks into the room and, after the initial confusion and elation, there is relief for a little while before the truth dawns. Gondo’s son has not been kidnapped; rather the only son of his chauffeur has been taken. The police have already arrived and the room is full of people. The phone rings, the kidnapper is told of his mistake, but refuses to back down. Either way, he insists, he has a boy and will kill him if the ransom is not paid We agonize with Gondo as his chauffeur grovels miserably begging for his son’s life, the junior executive argues for saving the business and his family’s if he fails to complete the business deal with the cash raised, and the police look on silently waiting for his choice.

Once the decision is made between the life of the boy and the fortunes of the family, (no spoilers!) the protagonist’s baton is passed to the police detective (Tatsuya Nakadai) who was assigned to investigate and resolve the kidnapping. He tries to pick up the pieces and run down the malefactor. From here the story changes to a police procedural or detective story familiar in shape to anyone familiar with detective fiction. There are differences, of course, with the story being set in Japan rather than New York, Chicago, or London, but these are largely superficial and won’t affect the enjoyment or understanding of the plot by viewers.

It’s well done, of course, and Nakadai is outstanding, as he always is. There’s even a small part for the amazing Takashi Shimura as the chief of the detective division. The second half of the film holds one’s interest, and Kurosawa does a great job keeping the plot progression clear. On the whole though, the thing that makes this movie memorable is the way the first half plays out. Fair enough, it’s a tremendous idea for a story and it’s executed to perfection. Kurosawa has many opportunities to show off his mastery of cinematography and shot composition with plenty of intricate scenes involving large numbers of actors. It’s also a real treat to see both Mifune and Nakadai showing off their talents for the great director even if they fewer interactions than an enthusiast might wish. If all you’ve seen from Kurosawa are his brilliant films set in the samurai era, then you really ought to bump this up your list and expand your horizons.

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