Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: High and Low (1963)

Now Available to Own


A watershed production in the career of legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, 1963’s High and Low utilized American postmodern Film Noir docudrama techniques evidenced in Sweet Smell of Success, Naked City, and The Killing to a level of painterly wizardry, culminating in one of the master director’s most technically innovative works.

Painstaking attention to detail in the marriage of theatricality and reality, Kurosawa fashions the film as if it were a piece of architecture. This cinematic approach finds Kurosawa’s talented stable of actors — including an implosive, controlled, and wonderfully against-type Toshiro Mifune — blocked in frame with the same care as props and set decorations.

And with this in mind, Kurosawa’s moody High also serves as a fascinating study for those who’ve just ejected Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, for example. Paying off on Tati admirably, High and Low is a perfect illustration of the way that space, shape, angles, and texture onscreen (or lack thereof) can impact not just the tone of the story and our understanding of it but the overall cohesive structure of a film as well.

By moving from a high key lit comedy to a Japanese take on Tinsletown noir, viewers will be able to appreciate the craftsmanship on a greater level than perhaps simply observed by moving through Kurosawa’s prolific oeuvre one film at a time to explore his countless and consistently diverse literary adaptations.

A kidnap for ransom thriller inspired by American crime novelist Ed McBain’s ’59 paperback King’s Ransom, High and Low was altered enough in screenplay form to bear only the basic spine of the scribe’s dime store detective potboiler.

Tengoku to Jigoku — literally translated Heaven and Hell — can be viewed straightforwardly as a cool, calculating crime picture or taken in a multitude of ways. Whether you're drawn in by its allegory as an exploration of the corporate Americanization of Japan (which makes High as timely today as it was in ’63) or get swept up by the ethical and moral dilemma of near-biblical proportions, High provides much philosophical food for thought.

Wealthy shoe company tycoon Kingo Gondo (Mifune) finds himself in the midst of an impossible situation. Caught between right and wrong and success and ruin, he's faced with the decision of whether or not to fork over more money than he has in his possession when a band of kidnappers mistakenly capture the son of his penniless chauffeur instead of his own.

A taut thriller that holds up well nearly five decades later, whichever way you investigate High and Low, the bottom line is Kurosawa’s picture still works as a sophisticated piece of popcorn cinema, entertaining the hell out of you as a tense, sophisticated, steadily-building showdown of good and evil.

While it does admittedly overstay its welcome, running out of steam in a final meandering act that loses some of the dramatic heft it had gathered earlier on, High’s impact on world cinema cannot be overstated.

Obviously it's a major source of inspiration for Ron Howard’s nerve-wracking ’95 chiller Ransom. Yet Kurosawa’s obsessive attention to detail and passion for police procedural minutia additionally anticipated and paved the way for the gritty docudrama style explorations of both sides of the thin blue line witnessed in Michael Mann’s Heat and David Fincher’s Zodiac.

A work of rare quality that’s intelligent as it is intense, High and Low does offer viewers a cinematic contact high, playing on the mind as well as the senses with shots that will leave you dizzy and breathless.

Pushing back the length of his ever growing shots even further, Kurosawa’s early ‘60s epic boasts numerous eight and nine minute takes, which easily benefitted from his notorious rehearsal periods.

Yet High and Low rivaled Hitchcock’s Rope with the inclusion of a near-reel spanning ten minute single sequential take in the form of a bravura footchase. The sequence necessitated not only raised stages and the conversion of theatre techniques to film but also the involvement of nine cameras shooting simultaneously, which pushed Kurosawa beyond his previous background of dual lenses and two camera set-ups.

Despite this, all of the architectural window-dressing and moviemaking wizardry in the world can’t hide the fact that High suffers from pacing lows and abrupt tonal changes in its final act as suddenly docudrama turned police drama morphs into a disjointed melodrama. Yet even though the film switches gears late in the game and loses some of the razor sharp focus it displayed early on, High and Low nonetheless remains a towering achievement in Kurosawa’s career.

Brilliantly brought to Blu-ray life in Criterion’s high definition update save for the absence of yellow subtitles to keep the white lettering from vanishing into the black and white concrete jungle of ‘60s corporate Japan, High and Low is an unparalleled effort. On the one hand, Kurosawa's work never ceases to impress from an aesthetic standpoint given its crisp museum level frame composition. And on the other, High and Low sets itself apart for its ethical engagement as a truly complex, humanistic thriller of high and low moral quandaries.

A compelling tale of crime, punishment, payment and class, Kurosawa’s heavenly look at Heaven and Hell is as multi-faceted as his spins on Shakespeare and as eye-catchingly unforgettable as the new wave of cinema that was occurring across the way in France at the very same time of this 1963 release.

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