“Success isn’t worth losing your humanity.”
Kurosawa’s 1963 film, Heaven and Hell, was his greatest straight thriller (a genre and approach only visited once before by Kurosawa in 1949 with Stray Dog – itself, one of the earliest police procedurals in cinematic history). It is based on the 1959 Ed McBain novel, King’s Ransom, but where McBain often overshadowed the humanity of the characters with investigatory technique and idealism, Kurosawa infuses an intensity that is wholly human and viscerally real. McBain’s 87th Precinct series (of which the King’s Ransom mystery is attributed) recalled (rather derivatively) the ‘50s TV series, Dragnet, but little of that is seen in this film in either tone or progression, only vaguely in plotting.
Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is factory executive of leading shoe company, National Shoes. At the beginning of the film, he is visited at his home by the remaining three executives of the company. They suggest selling lower quality shoes to boost waning sales. Kingo does not approve and criticises their shoddy handiwork. They then propose that together, with Kingo’s share, they can oust the President (and his old-fashioned mantra of durability over fashion) and produce shoes that will wear easily and make profit. He refuses, saying that a better option would be to make shoes his way: “comfortable, durable, yet stylish.” The executives threaten that they’ll side with the President and kick him out – he sends them away in a huff. Later he receives a phone call from a man who claims to have kidnapped his son; however, it was the chauffeur’s son who had been kidnapped by mistake (in a progression of events reminiscent of Hitchcock). Kingo is at a crossroads. The kidnapper not only has the leverage of a child’s life but also very good (or, for Kingo, very bad) timing. If he pays the sum demanded it will bankrupt him and, within only a few days, rob him of the opportunity to control the company (and probably lose his job). He is torn between societal dominance and moral duty, the allure of wealth and the humanity of another. It is not an easy decision, but Kingo is unable to sacrifice a child for even his family’s well-being (sound Biblical?).
Kingo calls the police and Detective Tokura (Nakadai) is more than dependable. He is intelligent and self-assured, concerned with both the boy’s safety and Kingo’s financial welfare. The film is full of interesting supporting characters like this. Kingo’s chauffeur, for instance, is the realistic portrait of a man who is inextricably indebted to his employer. He is fully aware of Kingo’s financial position and will now sacrifice everything he has to repay his employer’s selflessness. Kingo’s right hand man is Kawanishi. When we meet him, he is loyal and comfortably ensconced with Kingo, openly frank and ever-ready to assist. When he is offered to betray Kingo, something changes. It soon becomes clear that his loyalty can be bought. This is a tale about man’s innate nature to be selfish, to climb the ladder. Kawanishi sees weakness in Kingo when he decides to pay the kidnapper, an emotional move unbecoming of a true businessman.
The soundtrack (composed by the wonderful Masaru Sato who had also written scores for Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, and several Godzilla films) is grippingly surreal but minimal, only arising at the most important moments. Also, (once again, like Hitchcock) Kurosawa had to employ various techniques to realise his vision such as using elaborately-designed models for background scenery and multiple cameras aboard a train for an extended sequence. There are many long, unbroken shots as well – one totaling almost ten minutes. As a film showcasing Kurosawa’s virtuoso talent, High and Low is impeccable. While not commonly considered one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, the film is a lush character study (several in fact) wrapped in a police procedural (more akin to Georges Simenon’s work than McBain’s) just as, if not more, complex than such canonical classics as Quai des Orfevres and The Naked City. Kurosawa is in top-form here.