Akira Kurosawa's brilliant adaptation of Ed McBain's crime novel King's Ransom (co-scripted by Kurosawa & Hideo Oguni & Ryûzô Kikushima & Eijirô Hisaita) comes under the craftier title High and Low. Since the picture is an ode to the flatfoot (though never flatfooted), the title can refer to detectives searching high and low for a kidnapper. Much more so, however, the title evokes the class divide and the heaven vs. hell dichotomy of moral just desserts for good and bad behavior.
One of the all-time-great "procedurals," High and Low begins with a session of calculated conspiracy, albeit regarding the seemingly innocuous prize of a company called National Shoes. To the gaggle of interchangeable executives in the living room of Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), shoes are solely (pardon the pun) big business, to be wrested from the company's flagging "Old Man." To Mr. Gondo, who once upon a time pulled himself up by his bootstraps, shoes are the product of a craft to be respected, and a shoe company reliant on a customer base deserving of equal respect. Gondo isn't opposed to supplanting the wayward owner of National Shoes, but refuses to sacrifice quality. As we soon learn, he has his own takeover plan in motion, a plan suddenly, shockingly derailed by the kidnapping of a boy and the demand of a multimillion dollar ransom.
Though the boy turns out not to be Gondo's own son, the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki) preys on the executive's morality: can he let a boy die by refusing to pay the ransom? The cat-and-mouse game has begun, with the suddenly at-a-loss Gondo facing the toughest decision of his life and relying on the intervention of Yokohama police. The police attempt to trace calls and manage all contact with the kidnapper, but the criminal turns out to be something of a mastermind. The stakes are sky-high as the lives held in the balance risk being brought low: the missing boy, the kidnapper facing imprisonment or worse, the executive whose livelihood may go up in smoke. The pressure-cooker of the film's theatrical first act (the initial hour set almost entirely in the living room of Gondo's high-rise apartment) finds new tensions out of doors, as we see the kidnapper in his lair, and the flatfeet taking to the streets to find him (as Gondo sagely reminds us early on, "Shoes carry all...body weight").
The devilish fun is in the details for Kurosawa, whose use of figures within the filmic frame was never more effective, and whose staging of the ransom sequence is as well-oiled as the train that is its setting: the sequence also exploits the possibilities of film as part of the policeman's arsenal (one of several instances in which Kurosawa the craftsman identifies with the skill, strategy, and hard work of his characters). Kurosawa includes Kenjiro Ishiyama as Chief Detective "Bos'n'" Taguchi, a striking figure who "would need plastic surgery" not to look like a cop and fashions a lengthy internal police briefing sequence summarizing the fancy footwork of the various teams of investigators.
Kurosawa builds tension in a variety of ways: a playacted gun slaying proving "like father, like son" when it comes to the love of "bloodsport," a plume of pink smoke that violates the film's black-and-white visual scheme, a skin-crawling "Dope Alley" sequence throwing up hell-dwelling junkies as obstacles to the pursuit of the kidnapper. In the last case, Kurosawa rather shockingly sticks in the face of his mostly high-dwelling audience the low ground society tends to sweep even lower, under the proverbial rug. "A man must kill or be killed," says Gondo, and when he finally comes face to face with his kidnapper, one man has definitively beaten the other. But there is no triumph in this Phyrric victory, which has left both men with the gnawing pain of life's random cruelties. For this moment, as they look eye to eye, at last no man is above or below the other.
High and Low looks its best yet on home video in Criterion's new Blu-ray release. The black-and-white image is well-handled, though occasionally the work to hold back the years of the aged source is evident in signs of digital sharpening and scrubbing. The image retains its film-like character, and definitely sports improved detail over standard-def DVD. Happily, Criterion is here able to take advantage of the source's 4.0 channel Perspecta sound, ported over in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. Though it's not the cleanest track you'll ever hear, Criterion has done a decent clean-up while retaining the mix's vintage surround effects, some of which (like a passing trolley car) figure prominently in the plot.
The Blu-ray gathers several excellent bonus features, including a steady and thoughtful audio commentary featuring Akira Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince.
As with other Kurosawa Criterion releases, we get a film-specific installment of the fantastic Toho Masterworks documentary series "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create" (37:02, HD), which employs photographs, clips, and old and new interviews with Kurosawa, cast and crew to tell the story of the film's making
"Toshiro Mifune" (30:31, HD) is a rare interview of the actor by TV talk-show host Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.
"Tsutomu Yamazaki" (19:05, HD) is a 2008 Criterion-exclusive interview with the actor.
Also here are the "Japanese Trailer" (3:30, HD), "Japanese Teaser" (1:54, HD) and "U.S. Trailer" (1:43, HD), and the disc comes with a 36-page booklet including film credits, tech specs, photos, and essays by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and Japanese-film scholar Donald Richie.
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