High and Low

High and Low ★★★★★

"There are plenty of people richer than I am! Why me? And at a time like this! It would be suicide to pay!"

This tense crime thriller by Akira Kurosawa that hits all the "brilliant" buttons better than any of his samurai films, High and Low has been on my informal watchlist for a while but rocketed up in priority a year and a half ago after I joined the Letterboxd community. Currently sitting at number 12 on the "Official" Letterboxd Top 250 -- and the highest ranking non-animated film I hadn't yet seen (sorry Spirited Away, I'll eventually hate anime a little less to want to watch you) -- I caved in and purchased the Criterion Collection print after seeing accolades from friends. (Proof that I DO read and care about your reviews! That is, as long as you write multiple paragraphs intelligently and don't post shitty memes.)

Truly, a multilayered film that bridges themes of masculinity, class, and unspoken social commentary, rarely would a "police procedural" yield such magnificent results. Yet here we are with High and Low, which also manages to be goddamn exciting and suspenseful as well.

Featuring the two greatest Japanese actors of their generation (perhaps of all time) in Toshiro Mifune -- Seven Samurai, Rashomon and Yojimbo -- and Tatsuya Nakadai -- The Human Condition, Ran, and my all-time favorite Japanese film Harakiri -- this contained and thrilling crime drama is right up there with the best tension of Alfred Hitchcock. A wealthy executive (Mifune) fears his son is kidnapped after a phone call, only to be relieves he was not; unfortunately, the child's best friend was instead, and after contacting the police commissioner (Nakadai) there is a fierce debate over whether to pay the huge random for this boy's life in tens of millions. Complicated by a business deal in which he's already mortgaged his savings, he really doesn't have the money; also, he waffles at actually paying a ludicrous random for someone else's child. About a third of the way through the film -- which is 140 minutes but flies by in pace -- it suddenly morphs into a police drama at the forefront, and the tension and anxiety is turned up to 11. What follows is a masterwork of thrills and somewhat of a departure for director Akira Kurosawa: a contemporary adaptation of an American work, Ed McBain's King's Ransom. But rest assured, if you love the period films of Kurosawa, you will still find his usual social and political themes at play.

"Ruthless" is a great word for this movie. Mr. Gondo is ruthless for his heavy-handed attempts at business dealing. The police are ruthless in their pursuit of the suspect. The kidnapper is ruthless in his demands. Perhaps even Mrs. Gondo is ruthless in her humanity and understated morality. And Kurosawa is ruthless himself, in painting the upper class of Japan with a broadly critical and sinister brush. He doesn't quite come out and say "he got what was coming to him," but I'll be damned if he comes real close.

In Geoffrey O'Brien's excellent long essay about the film (which is worth a read in full if you've seen High and Low), he concludes thusly:

[Mr. Gondo] has his grand plan to seize control of National Shoes, just as the kidnapper has his grand plan to commit a perfect crime and exact an immense ransom. The film’s own grand plan is to keep turning the plot around to look at it from other angles, through different eyes….Hierarchies and group identities, and the impulses that can undermine them from within, are charted so clearly that we can draw the invisible lines connecting any character with any other character. From moment to moment they cannot help but show us where they are. The space to which Kurosawa devotes such consummate skill is a space defined by human relations, and is thus necessarily a space of constant turmoil, pressure, and struggle, right up to the moment when the barrier slams shut.

Oh hell yeah. A crime thriller that critiques class divides and the perches of the rich looking down on the masses? A ridiculously amazing film.

Added to Akira Kurosawa ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Films from Every Year I've Seen Them.

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