Reviewed by
Chris Galloway

Title: High and Low: Criterion (1963)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

Akira Kurasawa's exquisitely crafted adaptation of an Ed McBain mystery and is one of the greatest suspense films ever made. Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai star in a film about a kidnapping that goes terribly wrong.

Toshiro Mifune stars as a wealthy industrialist whose family becomes the target of a ruthless kidnapper in Akira Kurosawa's exemplary film noir. Based on Ed McBain's detective novel "King's Ransom," High and Low is both a riveting thriller and a brilliant commentary on contemporary Japanese society.

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Hiroshi Unayama.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1; audio French Digital Mono; subtitles English; single sided - single layered; 23 chapters; rated NR; 143 min.; $39.95; street date 10/14/98.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/C/F

Going through my little Akira Kurosawa phase, I had another film of his to view on DVD. It's one I avoided at first for many different reasons. The first was the fact that the DVD was so darned expensive. It was priced at one of Criterion's more premium prices. The second was that the movie was not a samurai flick. By this time I had only viewed three Kurosawa films, all of which were samurai ones. This one is a more of a police drama if you will.

I did finally find it at a reasonable price and ended up buying it (I'm now on a mission to get the whole set of Criterion discs and since I have all the discontinued ones, I don't see a problem in that) and I am now yet again, like with so many other films Criterion has released, regretting not having seen it before. It's a well-executed thriller with some outstanding characters and incredible informative bits on police procedure, social behavior and a bit on Japanese society.

The movie starts out with a wealthy industrialist, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) in a meeting with some of his fellow partners. He is a shoe manufacturer and is disappointed with everyone else's persistence in making cheaper shoes to cut costs, as well, if they are cheaper they fall apart faster and more shoes have to be bought to replace them. Gondo does not agree with these ideas, as he believes in customers before profits. He has come up with the idea to buy 51% of the company, therefore having more control than the other partners. All he needs is 30 million yen and after closing a deal it happens. He has the money.

But fate intervenes. Just as he is about to send his assistant to close a deal in buying up the company he receives a phone call from an anonymous stranger, claiming to have kidnapped his son. The price wanted: 30 million yen. Gondo is of course all willing to pay but it is soon realized that the kidnapper grabbed the wrong boy, having grabbed the chauffeurs son instead, Gondo isn't too hesitant on paying the ransom. He then has to make a decision. Save the chauffeurs son and lose all he has, or use the money to buy up the company and allow the boy to die.

The film is divided into three obvious acts. The first act is all about Gondo's decision on what to do. It's very dramatic and quite tense. While we may have trouble with some of his reasoning, you can understand the predicament he is in. Toshiro Mifune plays the role perfectly. He doesn't play Gondo as some insensitive, uncaring prick. There is a lot of conflict going on inside that head of his and his face delivers everything he's thinking every second.

The second part is police procedural and it's very fascinating, most of these techniques used over here as well. It goes through step by step in the process of finding this kidnapper. We're informed of many schemes including marked bills circulating, process of elimination with telephone booths, possible assistants and even a clever scheme in flushing the kidnapper out. This section is long but it is absolutely intriguing to watch.

The third focuses more on the kidnapper character, a very good villain indeed. While the movie somewhat skims on his upbringing and his current conditions, you can understand his personality but Kurosawa never lets you feel sympathy for him or present his upbringing as an excuse. The actor, Tsutomu Yamazaki is terrific in this role. A young medical student, he is the embodiment of evil. Hateful, uncaring and ultimately cold. He blames everyone else for his problems and he has managed to find an excuse to blame Gondo. With his huge house up on the hill, the kidnapper can only look up from his slummy home and be jealous.

The actual title to the movie translates from Japanese to "Heaven and Hell", and that is a very good title. Starting with the Heaven that is Gondo's home and ending in the Hell that is the kidnappers home and life. The movie ends basically in a junkie alley and Kurosawa manages to shoot some horrific shots here.

I can easily say now that American films heavily influenced Kurosawa. His samurai movies were westerns in spirit and this film is definitely an American cop drama (it's based on a book called "King's Ransom" by Ed McBain) with a few Japanese elements thrown in it. If it weren't for the subtitles, this movie could be easily confused for an American made movie. High and Low is an excellent and entertaining thriller that I regret judging too soon. It is definitely one of his better films.

The DVD:

Unfortunately, Criterion has released an extremely disappointing DVD. For a retail price of $39.99 this thing is quite bland. The movie is presented on a single sided, dual layered disc and presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

The picture is a mixed bag here. Ultimately it's very sharp and the print is extremely clean. Print flaws are almost non-existent, though a couple cigarette burns have been left in. The film is black and white (Kurosawa seemed to like black and white over color) and the black levels and white levels are good, just in the fact that black is true black and white is true white. A scene involving pink smoke seems a little blurred but it was more than likely because of the optical effect itself and not the transfer.

The problem is that the contrast is way off. Whites are extremely bright and blacks are really dark. Scenes in the daylight are the worst. Sometimes anyone wearing a white shirt almost disappears and the wrinkles in the shirt do not appear. And dark scenes are just way too dark, leaving next to nothing to be seen. The only scenes that look okay are scenes indoors with artificial light. This is a shame because since the print was pretty damn clean and the picture never suffers from softness (although with the contrast like this I can't see how it could), a little fine tuning on the contrast and this could have been one of their best black and white transfers. A real shame.

The Dolby Digital Mono track is not bad but has nothing to really offer. The dialogue is very intelligible and there is no background noise or hiss. But it has no real moments of awe, even for a mono track. It's all very bland and straight through. The movie is very dialogue oriented and other than the opening titles and the Elvis song played during the climax, there is no music, though when it does play, it sounds very clear and not distorted. Only one scene involves an audio effect and that's a sequence on the train. It's loud, clear and doesn't drown out dialogue. The fact is, the mono track is good and for what it is it presents no problems. But what it is is just an average track still and falls in that "C" level.

Supplements are the big tick-off. There are none! A booklet is included and while I would usually give a film a "D-" for at least that I'm not going to here. Why? Because for $40 I want more than a friggin' booklet! And the booklet isn't even that good either. Criterion has a price plan where only special editions receive that price. While I still find it too much, I can accept that more. But $40 for a movie only edition, come on! $30 is pushing it but I would sort of accept it. Why is it so much? I don't know. Maybe the transfer cost more or it's the fact that it's a dual layered disc, but I can't see that as a reason. Especially since Wages of Fear, another Criterion disc can be found for about $20-$30, and its dual layered and contains a much better picture than this one. This disc costs the same as a feature-loaded Rushmore. I don't get it! I pay $40, I can accept a trasnsfer like this but I expect extras. At least a commentary!!

Anyways, while I like the movie I can't recommend the disc at all. I would have to say get the cassette. The cassette is available in widescreen (and this is definitely a movie that would look like utter crap in pan & scan so that's good) and I'm sure the contrast would be better. For $40, this disc is basically a waste.

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