Monday, January 18, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: High and Low

It is always interesting to see an international auteur tackle the hardboiled American detective novel. While Donald Westlake’s source novel The Jugger is almost completely unrecognizable in Jean-Luc Godard’s eccentric Marxist adaptation Made in U.S.A., Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom (an 87th Precinct novel) fortunately landed in Akira Kurosawa’s more sympathetic hands. The resulting High and Low (trailer here) still holds up as a top-notch film noir police procedural. Demonstrating Kurosawa’s versatility as a filmmaker, High screens during Film Forum’s laudably thorough celebration of the master director’s centennial.

Kingo Gondo makes shoes, but he does it well. He has clawed his way to the top of the production department of National Shoes, without succumbing to pressure to cut corners. Making a bold play, Gondo has leveraged everything to buy an independently held block of stock that would give him controlling interest. Then in flash, Gondo’s life is undone when his son is kidnapped. Except, it is not his son that was taken, but that of his chauffeur. Yet, even when the mistake is revealed, the kidnapper holds fast to his exorbitant ransom demand, leading to a crisis of conscience for Gondo.

In many ways, Gondo is a hero in the Ayn Rand tradition. Truly, he could care less of the trappings of wealth, solely seeking the satisfaction of creating something of enduring value. Still, Objectivists will ultimately find him lacking for his altruistic weaknesses. The slow burning Toshirō Mifune conveys all the pride and decency of this complicated character with complete conviction. His is counterbalanced by the ice-cold Tatsuya Nakadai as Detective Tokura, the cool cop trying not to get emotionally involved in the case.

While Mifune and Nakadai are probably the most celebrated Japanese actors of any generation, High’s lesser known supporting players are also quite strong. As Tokura’s Bos’n, the big bald Kenjiro Ishiyama totally looks and acts like a cop, while on the other side of the cat-and-mouse game, Tsutomu Yamazaki brings the right touch of creepiness to the mysterious kidnapper, without overdoing it.

High captures the right grittily realistic look and feel of on-the-ground police work. Kurosawa, the master, clearly had a deep command of the genre, shrewdly creating tension through the effective use of Gondo’s Frank Lloyd Wright inspired glass house sitting high atop a high overlooking the city’s slums. He memorably caps High with a strange coda that affords viewers a shrouded glimpse into the criminal’s psyche, warped as it is by class envy and resentment.

Kurosawa’s international reputation might have been made with classics like Rashomon, but he could also craft an intriguing film noir. Had High been the work of another filmmaker, it might be considered their masterwork, but for Kurosawa, it is just another really good movie. Indeed, it is an excellent film, definitely worth seeing when it screens during the Kurosawa Centennial series at Film Forum on January 22nd.