One of the all time great thrillers, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low is as comprehensive, meticulous, and masterful a nail-biter as the genre has given us. Toshirô Mifune stars as a powerful shareholder in a major shoe-making company who on the eve of a risky move to take over the company, is targeted by a kidnapper looking for a ransom. Unfortunately, for him, he’s leveraged himself to such an extent that to pay the ransom will mean financial ruin and unfortunately for the kidnapper, he kidnapped the chauffeur’s son by accident!
The first half of the film unfolds as a fascinating moral drama where Toshira’s Gondo sways between his dual determination not to give in to the ransomer and not to let anything happen to the child. The resolution is utterly gripping and peaks in a truly beautiful cinematic moment that sees both Mifune and Kurosawa at their magnificent best. But just when you think it cannot get any more tense, the police investigation begins in earnest, as the detectives demonstrate all the zeal and passion which Gondo’s sacrifice inspired within them. There has simply never been a better dramatisation of a manhunt and the forensic investigation involved as the great Tatsuya Nakadai runs his charges through the paces.
Kurosawa brings a broad array of style and technique to this sprawling film. The early parts of the film see clever use of set design and some wonderful staging to set the claustrophobic nature of the close drama. The manhunt is constructed with overlapping sequences and gently inserted flashbacks as the actions of the individual officers are recounted in systematic and startlingly clear fashion. Kurosawa blends it all together with the majesty of a great orchestra conductor so that the audience is kept perfectly up to speed despite the complexity of the investigation. Finally, the film moves assuredly into all the gritty splendor of the great films noirs as shadows and sound are fused in sublime fashion. The acting is immense too with Mifune revealing a vulnerable and layered character which grows progressively and at all times believably as the events unfold. Nakadai gives a reserved and intelligent performance as the lead detective and together they give Kurosawa’s deconstruction of integrity real substance.
High and Low is an intense and powerfully gripping film that towers head and shoulders over many of the countless movies to have tackled similar topics. As a mystery, crime thriller, and film-noir wrapped up in one package its not only astoundingly seamless but great value too!
Kurosawa’s first outing under the umbrella of his own production company is this loose adaptation of Hamlet (the second and most under-acknowledged of his magnificent Shakespearean trilogy). Beginning with an elaborate wedding sequence in which a corporate leader’s daughter and his personal secretary are married, this intricate tale is set up as the main players and internal politics are laid out through the amusing conversations of gathering reporters. The reporters are gathered because the fraud squad are expected to arrive with arrest warrants for senior company figures which pertain to bribery, embezzlement, and the suicide of a senior clerk after he threw himself out of a seventh story window the year before. Interrupting the curious speeches, a second wedding cake arrives in the shape of the corporate headquarters with a rose protruding from the aforementioned seventh story window. It’s a sharply realised moment made even more effective as the room full of guests attempt to politely ignore the awkward implications. This a truly brilliant opening and culminates perfectly with a deliciously reflexive remark made by one of the reporters. As the story progresses, the sender of the cake escalates his persecution of the executives until each are pitted against the other in a Machiavellian strategy of revenge.
Toshirô Mifune is the young groom whose involvement in the story grows interestingly throughout the first and second act. He brings a reserved intensity to the role that reflects the momentum of the film at a more focused level and moves from seething hatred to compassionate friend and indeed husband with a graceful ease. Kamatari Fujitara and Kô Nishimura are excellent as the two grovelling executives at the bottom of the food chain and Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura scores well as one of the evil superiors.
The Bad Sleeps Well is a beautifully shot film-noir. The depth and contrasts seem to effortlessly combine to frame character and action alike while the tableau shots of the wedding in particular are simply spectacular. Kurosawa’s use of sound is just as impressive and the scene in which he backtracks Fujitara’s characters funeral with a secret recording of his bosses’ gloating is reminiscent of Welles at his best. The true virtue to the film is the writing which lays out a plot as complex and fascinatingly structured as the best of the French or US variety. There’s a wonderful balance to the script as the cold business settings are offset by some touching personal moments with the contrast between the pitiless and warm dialogue of the two sequences being the most striking. The film does seem to have trouble in second-third act transition which slightly imbalances the mood which had been so carefully set early on. However, the ending more than makes up for it as everything is snapshot back into focus.
The Bad Sleep Well is a ruthless indictment of corporate culture in Kurosawa’s Japan where CEOs operated with impunity by preying on the submissive mentality of lackeys who would go as far as killing themselves rather than let their betters take the fall. It’s also a profound meditation on revenge and how the only way to fight evil is to become it and where any mercy results in slaughter.