Based upon Ed McBain's 87th Precinct crime novel, King's Ransom, Kurosawa transforms this pulp source into a morality play of good and evil with the stakes a man's redemption of his soul in a heartless world. High and Low is the English translation of the Japanese Tengoku to jigoku, but a more accurate translation would be "Heaven and Hell," and that is what the film conveys -- Heaven being the high-rise luxury home of National Shoe executive Kingo Gondo (Toshir? Mifune), high on a mountain overlooking the squalid Hell of juke joints, prostitutes, dope alleys, and poverty below.
Gondo is preparing for an aggressive takeover attempt of the shoe company from a rapacious group of cutthroat executives ("A man's got to attack of be attacked") and has mortgaged his home and savings to buy up a majority stake. As the executives leave Gondo's house in a rage and Gondo prepares to make his move, he receives a phone call from a kidnapper announcing that his son has been kidnapped. Very quickly it is determined that Gondo's son is safe but that the kidnapper mistakenly abducted the son of his chauffeur. Nevertheless, the kidnapper still insists that Gondo pay the ransom or the child will be killed. Paying the ransom will not only ruin his plans for a takeover but would bankrupt him too.
Mifune invests Gondo with a ferocity that would make a mountain explode and in a way a mountain does explode -- Gondo's Olympian retreat. The first hour of High and Low takes place exclusively in the living room of Gondo's massive home, the sun streaming through the glass windows that block out the hellish sounds from the city below. Kurosawa delivers a master class in the use of widescreen in a confined space as corporate intrigue and extortion threats are played out in the camera placement and movements of the actors within the frame.
From there, Kurosawa sucker punches the viewer into a high speed bullet train in the film's most kinetic sequence as the payoff is made to the kidnappers.
Then arrives the final section of the film, transformed into the methodical (perhaps too methodical) police procedural mode of films like The Naked City as the police doggedly and systematically track down the kidnapper, Kurosawa venturing into the lower depths of wretchedness and misery with a Stygian abandon.
At one point Gondo's wife tells him, "Success isn't worth losing your humanity." By the end of the film, Gondo reclaims his humanity at the expense of commercial success. Reflecting Kurosawa's own moral dilemma in 1963 in choosing art over crass commercialism, High and Low was Kurosawa's last film reflecting contemporary society and utilizing modern sources. With his next film, Red Beard, and then a post-film suicide attempt, Kurosawa saved his soul at the expense of his career. He wouldn't have had it any other way.
Aka Tengoku to jigoku.
Run time: 143 mins
In Theaters: Tuesday 26th November 1963
Distributed by: Criterion Collection
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Fresh: 14 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 8.4 / 10
Director: Akira Kurosawa