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High And Low (1963)

aka Heaven and Hell
"You will never see your son alive again!"
"I'm looking right at him, you must have the wrong number..."
"er... is this 233-2920?"
"Ah, I see no, it's 2921! Well good luck!"

Genre: Drama Thriller (Japan)

Starring: Toshirô Mifune (Throne Of BloodDrunken Angel), Tatsuya Nakadai (YojimboRan)

Directed By: Akira Kurosawa (Judo SagaNot Yet)

Overview: When the kidnapping of a corporate executive's son goes awry, he is faced with an almost impossible choice - pay the ransom for his chauffeur's kidnapped child, or use the money as planned and gain control of the corporation.

High and Low, aka Heaven and Hell, is a bittersweet film. It's longer than most - as long as Ikiru at 143 minutes - and the greatest problem I had with it would be the 'beginning of the procedure' part of this police procedural.

The plot elements are beautifully original, the characters truly defined, and the film a joy to watch, however the beginning inspired many a question to which my instinctual inner-self responded "Bullshit". Even though I've never known the Japan of 1963, I somehow just knew that the police couldn't possibly be so deferential to the man they're helping.

We begin in a rich executive's home, discussing the future of the company, National Shoes. Politics, stocks and sweeping changes for profit-over-quality are the discussions at hand. Threats and votes are slung around and we learn of Mr. Gondo's (Mifune) precarious position at his company. Yet Gondo is far from being a stupid man. He's mortgaged to the hilt because for the last while, he's been buying up company stock to solidify his position. Today, he's one cheque away from owning enough of the company to secure a veto vote.

So far so good. What could be a mildly interesting corporate tale of intrigue turns tragic when someone calls Mr. Gondo, demanding 30 million yen ransom for the safe return of his only son. A nice twist, again enhanced by the fact that the kidnapper(s) accidentally took Gondo's chauffeur's son. Another interesting half-gainer indeed.

Time goes on, we immerse ourselves in the moral dilemma facing Gondo - paying a ransom for someone who's not related to him, or paying for the rest of the shares to make the company essentially his own and leading the charge towards his vision for the company.

When the police get involved, it turns a little messy, script-wise. Several times throughout their process, I wondered if Kurosawa actually researched police procedure, since the way these characters acted seemed so... clunky... almost like this was their first kidnapping assignment.

However, these moments of doubt vanish eventually, and the film progresses with gloriously intense suspense and high drama.

Junkie clunk in Dope Alley
Junkie clunk in Dope Alley

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 7 Plot: 8 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 82% (Some Valleys, Mostly Mountains)

The Emperor said about himself, "In all my films, there's three or maybe four minutes of real cinema." I think we can all grasp what he's saying in his humble way, but before I leave you, I wanted to point out one of my favorite scenes of any Kurosawan work I've seen yet, and it is from High And Low.

Those of you who recall Stray Dog's 8-minute montage will see something similar here, in a scene where police follow a suspect around town. They constantly bait and switch, change outfits, and watch the man go through an elaborate ordeal to secure some heroine. Eventually this man goes into Dope Alley where the worst of the junkies reside waiting for their next fix. In a perfectly conveyed scene where we witness the impoverished denizens going through terrible withdrawal, I understood the suffering of a junkie like I never have before.

Reading Kurosawa's autobiography, I learned how much of a passionate man he was, often on the brink of tears when a scene was done so well. I can only hope and imagine that this montage in High and Low, where junkies rattle their lives away in such a heart-wrenching and pathetic fashion, was one of the moments that made Kurosawa believe he'd made a few minutes of cinema.

As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the best scenes of cinematic history.

No. I don't take statements like that lightly either.

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