High and Low

High and Low ★★★★

High and Low is basically Kurosawa's Hitchcock moment, and that has its positive and negative aspects. It's Kurosawa, so the implication is what we're getting is going to be impressive and absorbing. Despite this, there are certain things that could do with a little burnishing.

Toshiro Mifune gives a cracking performance as a businessman who, when his chauffeur's son is kidnapped, is torn between paying the ransom - which will see him lose his fortune - and not doing so - which may well result in the boy being killed. However, for my money, Tatsuya Nakadai deserves top acting honours for his meticulous portrayal of the police detective assigned to the case; Nakadai demonstrates an incredible ease and subtlety in handling what could have been a very perfunctory, underwritten role. However, Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters understand how much of the story hinges on the character.

Aside from the impeccable performances, Kurosawa keeps a consistently steady grasp on the drama, guiding it through from scene to extended scene. The camera moves gracefully and the composition of the widescreen frame feels wonderfully meaningful. Something else he manages well is the pacing - the story just never lets up. This is both a blessing and a curse, however. This stands in clear contrast to films like Ran and Ikiru in the way it's simply crammed with dialogue and events. We're never given time to breathe, and, while the film is steered into pretty dark territory, the only room for reflection comes at the end. Besides, the film becomes pretty conventional once the focus shifts away from Mifune's character and onto the police procedural side of the narrative; the dilemma he faces in the first half, or some form of it, should have been sustained throughout so as to keep that human element present. The ending, while affecting, does come across as an afterthought.

It's a stifling watch, and definitely towards the lower end of the spectrum in terms of the Kurosawa I've seen, but that's not saying a great deal. High and Low is still an intelligent, precise and well-plotted drama and a strong example of the director coping outside his element.

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