A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

High and Low begins surprisingly, considering that Kurosawa is known as a master director of action, with a long static sequence that takes place in one set: the living room of the home of Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), an executive with a company called National Shoe. The sequence, almost like a filmed play, depicts Gondo's meeting with the other executives of the company, who are trying to take it over, believing that the "Old Man" who runs it is out of touch with the shoe market. Gondo, however, thinks the company should focus on well-made, stylish shoes rather than the flimsy but fashionable ones the others are promoting. After the others have gone, we see that Gondo has his own plan to take over the company with a leveraged buyout -- he has mortgaged everything he has, included the opulent modern house in which the scene takes place. But suddenly he receives word that his son has been kidnapped and the ransom will take every cent that he has. Naturally, he plans to give in to the kidnappers' demands -- until he learns that they have mistakenly kidnapped the wrong child: the son of his chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada). Should he go through with his plans to ransom the boy, even though it will wipe him out? Enter the police, under the leadership of Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), and the scene becomes a complicated moral dilemma. Thus far, Kurosawa has kept things stagey, posing the group of detectives, Gondo, his wife (Kyoko Kagawa), his secretary (Tatsuya Mihashi), and the chauffeur in various permutations and combinations on the Tohoscope widescreen. But once a decision is reached -- to pay the ransom and pursue the kidnappers -- Kurosawa breaks free from the confinement of Gondo's house and gives us a thrilling manhunt, the more thrilling because of the claustrophobic opening segment. The original title in Japanese can mean "heaven and hell" as well as "high and low," and once we move away from Gondo's living room we see that his house sits high on a hill overlooking the slums where the kidnapper (Tsutomo Yamazaki) lives, and from which he can peer into Gondo's house through binoculars. We return to the police procedural world of Stray Dog (Kurosawa, 1949), where sweaty detectives track the kidnapper through busy nightclubs and the haunts of drug addicts, and Kurosawa's cameras -- under the direction of Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito -- give us every sordid glimpse. It's a skillful thriller, based on one of Evan Hunter's novels written under the "Ed McBain" pseudonym, done with a masterly hand. And while it's not one of Kurosawa's greater films, it has unexpected moral depth, enhanced by fine performances, including a restrained one by Mifune -- this time, the freakout scene goes to Yamazaki's kidnapper.

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