Monday, November 23, 2009

"YOUR HOUSE LOOKED LIKE HEAVEN HIGH UP THERE. THAT'S HOW I BEGAN TO HATE YOU!" Akira Kurosawa's TENGOKU TO JIGOKU (1963) aka HIGH AND LOW is something of a surprise to those who are used to most of his other films. For those expecting something like SEVEN SAMURAI, THRONE OF BLOOD, IKIRU, RASHOMON or even DREAMS, this film isn't really what we're used to from Kurosawa. It's actually a police procedural (not actually a "film noir" which it is sometimes called) based on a work by crime novelist Ed McBain. Not exactly Akira Kurosawa territory. But naturally, Kurosawa is a master of cinema and quickly proves that he is as much at home in that genre as in medieval Japan..
The film stars Akira Kurosawa's muse Toshiro Mifune as Mr. Gondo: an executive in the National Shoe company. Gondo is unhappy with the way the company is going (towards shoddier cheap merchandise) and is planning a major stock-buying takeover bid. Gondo's manufacturing malcontent reminded me of a similar character played by William Holden in EXECUTIVE SUITE; an executive who sees the former excellence of his company being brought down by slipshod product. Gondo is planning to spring his takeover buyout of the company the following day. However, on the eve of his undertaking, Gondo receives a phone call informing him that his son has been kidnapped and he will have to pay $30 million smackers for the boy's safe return. Fairly quickly, however, it is determined that the kidnapper goofed and kidnapped the chauffer's son instead. When he realizes his mistake, the kidnapper phones again and informs Gondo that he will STILL have to pay the ransom otherwise the boy will be killed anyway! Of course, if Gondo pays for the return of his chauffer's son, he will not be able to conclude his takeover bid and he will be ruined. This rather interesting moral dilemma forms the crux of the film's "will he or won't he" first half while the remainder of the film concerns the police procedures involved in trying to track down the kidnapper and return the boy safely.
Mifune is, as always, excellent as the hardened yet principled businessman Gondo and he brings a palpable anguish to his moral dilemma. Kurosawa brings quite a few tense moments of suspense to the film. The strengths of the director, however, are brought into sharper focus when Mifune is off the screen and the camera follows the police. Such a departure from a star the calibre of Toshiro Mifune could cause a film to seriously loose steam when re-focussing on a group of basically unknown (to Western audiences) police detectives and the possibly rather dry details of police procedure. It is Kurosawa's serious talent in the director's chair (as well as a tightly written script by Kurosawa's frequent collaborators Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima and Eijiro Hisaita) which keeps things every bit as interesting and absorbing. It must be admitted, however, that the police are aided by the inclusion of that OTHER frequent Kurosawa megastar Takashi Shimura (IKIRU et. al) in the small role of Chief of Investigation. The over-two hour film does lose a little bit of steam during a slightly protracted sequence in which the kidnapper goes about town at night trying to buy heroin, but this is only a very minor quibble and doesn't detract from the overall effectiveness of the film. Camerawork, as to be expected in ANY Kurosawa film, is uniformly excellent. There is one particular scene in which the kidnapper (wearing mirrored sunglasses) peers out of the nighttime undergrowth. This scene I found very reminiscent of a similar scene in the early Hammer classic THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (aka THE CREEPING UNKNOWN) in which Richard Wordsworth does much the same thing. Also, the bland yet sinister look of the kidnapper with his shiny shades undoubtedly inspired the look of Elijah Wood's cannibalistic psycho in SIN CITY.
There is a rumoured remake in the offing; the only thing fending off a sinking feeling at such news is the attachment of such names as Mike Nichols and David Mamet to the project.

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