Wednesday, August 29, 2007

High and Low (1963)

The title of Akira Kurosawa's immersive kidnapping drama literally translates to Heaven and Hell, but for once I think the colloquial version actually works better. The malleability of the terms "high" and "low" lead into a number of possible allusions and interpretations. There's the literal meaning, in that Toshiro Mifune's beleaguered footwear executive lives on top of a hill and is preyed upon by a denizen of the valley below. There's the nod to class warfare. There's the foreshadowing of the drug material that shows up in the third act. There's the intimation of a humbling, with Mifune's confidence and best laid plans wrecked by a twist of random chance. And there's the staging of the narrative as a literal descent, starting as it does in Mifune's elevated castle and gradually sloping down to street level and then below, into the scummy underworld of murderers and junkies. The richness of the title, in other words, is a perfect reflection of the richness of the work and how many ways it satisfies (as a tense drama, as an early police procedural, as a sad reflection on evil and the cost of living in a dog-eat-dog economic world and simply as a ripping good yarn). It bogs down a bit at the halfway point when the police are stuck chasing phantom clues and hoping for miracles (which they get, in a stunning dollop of color), but the fascination of the film's elements and Kurosawa's impeccable mise-en-scene -- note how it's careful and distanced in the first half and gradually becomes more fevered, culminating in a trip to Junkie Alley that feels like it sprang from a German Expressionist horror film -- keep it clicking along nicely.

Grade: B+


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your review, so why the "B+" rating. Based on your review I'd say "A-" at least. An underrated film in the Kurosawa oeuvre.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

The B+ is reflective of the fact that my attention did wander during the film's midsection -- I think the procedural aspect is overextended a bit. Then again, I'm reaching the point where grades are more of a courtesy and a way to file things away than anything else. I find myself questioning my own grades a lot these days, and I've changed a few in mid-review (Shock Corridor was a B+ until I finished the review).

7:34 PM  

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