High and Low

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High and Low

Akira Kurosawa's masterful crime thriller High And Low is a tale of two movies: The first is a 53-minute potboiler set almost entirely in a single room, and the second a high-stakes police procedural that zigzags breathlessly from one lead to the next as it tightens the net on a suspected kidnapper. One of the remarkable things about the movie is how those halves interact, as the suffocating tension of confinement gives way to the open air. There's a different kind of suspense in each situation, with the first half consumed in extended negotiation and plotting over the kidnapping, and the second half a race against the clock to hunt down the sociopath responsible. Through it all, Kurosawa analyzes the smallest possible details in laying out and cracking the case; in that sense, High And Low is like a proto-Zodiac in its obsessive tracking of every lead, no matter how obscure or unpromising.

Adapted from Ed McBain's detective novel King's Ransom, High And Low casts Kurosawa favorite Toshirô Mifune as a temperamental shoe-company executive storing up money to buy a controlling stake in the business. His ambitious plans hit a snag when a caller informs him that his son has been kidnapped; the 30 million yen ransom would leave him bankrupt. But here's the twist: Instead of abducting Mifune's son, the kidnapper has run off with his chauffeur's son accidentally. Naturally, Mifune wonders how much responsibility he should have for someone else's kid, but he resolves to pay the ransom anyway, in the hope that the authorities will recover it in the end.

Though the scenes inside Mifune's hilltop estate sound like filmed theater, Kurosawa makes them breathtakingly cinematic, filling each long take with a lot of dynamic movement across his CinemaScope frame. Once the action opens up, Kurosawa rolls up his sleeves and analyzes each piece of evidence that comes the detectives' way: In narrowing down the kidnapper's location, they set a flood of phoned-in leads against small clues like a child's crude drawing, or the sound a particular train makes as it chugs down the line. Miraculously, High And Low turns the mundane follow-through of police work into the stuff of white-knuckle suspense.

Key features: Reigning Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince contributes a thorough commentary on the first disc, while the slim supplemental disc is highlighted by a rare 30-minute making-of documentary for Japanese television.