High and Low(1963) was adapted by director Akira Kurosawa and his two co-scenarists from an Ed McBain novel, which puts that author of pulpish police procedurals (who published his more “serious” work under the name Evan Hunter) in the company of William Shakespeare, the only other Western author that the Japanese master drew from twice. Obviously there was something about McBain’s work that appealed to Kurosawa since, as was the case with The Bad Sleep Well (1960), he’s taken one of the prolific writer’s cleverly plotted if unexceptional stories and pumped it up to a 2 1/2-hour noir epic, emphasizing the moral dilemma of its premise and the nihilistic aspects of its denouement.
The film’s three-act structure is marked by shifts in tone and pacing, giving the movie an odd cobbled-together feel. The first section, lasting about 45 minutes, takes place almost entirely in the bungalow of the rich shoe manufacturer, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune). Gondo is in the process of trying to wrestle control of his company by negotiating an expensive stock buyout, thus saving it from usurpers who think he’s too old-fashioned — and too principled — to maintain a profitable reign.
But before he can consummate the deal, he receives news that his young son has been kidnapped and that the ransom demanded will surely put him out of business. This blow is complicated when it turns out that the kidnapper has taken the wrong child, the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. Gondo must now decide if he’s willing pay the kidnapper and lose his empire in order to save another man’s child. It’s a hard call for the willful tyrant and something of a tour-de-force for Mifune.
The second and longest section of the film is a detailed look at the police’s attempts to identify and find the kidnapper. Here Kurosawa seems to have been influenced by the spate of semidocumentary crime films that had a vogue in the States in the late ’40s — e.g. Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947) and Jules Dassin’s Naked City (1948). Gondo and his sufferings recede into the background as the story becomes more meticulous, even a little dawdling. The final part of the film follows the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a Raskolnikov-like character, during his final descent into modern urban hell and a self-absorbed destructiveness. For this, Kurosawa switches from a realistic to an expressionist mode, with horror-movie imagery and a nearly sensual sense of despair.
Although the film is a little too enamored of police work to maintain its dramatic impetus — it seems fractured — it’s still effective; too unwieldy to rank with the director’s best, but devastating all the same.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].