Tuesday, June 12, 2012

High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku)

1963, 143 min. Not Rated - some violence and drug use, no language or nudity.
IMDB says... An executive of a shoe company becomes a victim of extortion when his chauffeur's son is kidnapped and held for ransom.

The 73rd Virgin says... Any Johnny-come-lately movie reviewer approaches director Akira Kurosawa with great trepidation. This is my first. Can there really be anything useful left to write? Whatever one thinks of his stately pacing, his moralism, his pacifism, no one put a larger number of startling images in our heads. The only real film retrospective I ever attended concerned his movies. Watching his glorious battle scenes in all those samurai flicks or his precisely placed actors in his almost western modern dramas was often just waiting for the next image that would stick with you for years.

I don't do precise lists of my favorites, but - gun to my head ten days in a row demanding to know my favorite movie ever - this would probably pop out on three or four of those days. Maybe because the first time I saw it was as a huge beautiful restored print at The River Oaks Theater in Houston. Nothing matches that experience.

It's really just a potboiler based on an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel that I've never read (Kurosawa was occasionally criticized in Japan for his western influences). But in the great one's hands it becomes 1/3 morality play, 1/3 cop procedural, and 1/3 film noir.

Japanese monument Toshiro Mifune stars as the delightfully named Kingo Gondo who is an executive at the National Shoe Company. He is at odds with three other executives about the future of the company, specifically whether it will become a purveyor of cheap, high-profit glued cardboard or will try to take the high road to continued success. Gondo is quickly sketched as a man of principle at least, although he is as ruthless as his rivals. After they leave, he reveals to his assistant and his wife his plans to mortgage everything he owns, buy a controlling interest in the company and kick his rivals out.

The first 51 minutes of the movie occur in Gondo's mansion (a relative term) which overlooks the steaming, noisy port of Yokohama. The opening credits run over a gigantic (70mm I guess) shot of the port, and every time Gondo opens the door to his balcony the noises pour in.

In an innocent scene we meet Gondo's wife, his son Jun, and his chauffeur’s son, Shinichi. The boys are playing sheriff and outlaw. Innocently again, they trade outfits and even Jun's mother gets them mixed up. In a scene that I just marvel at every time I see it, the very moment that Gondo's business triumph should be clear, his chauffeur asks if they've seen his son, his wife notices it has become dark outside, and the phone rings. It's the first time we see Kurosawa's method for amping up the dynamic of a scene by shifting the camera ever so slightly when Gondo's wife runs toward the phone. And then he intercuts shots of the character's reactions with even more energy.

And then... Gondo's son walks in, and the every assumption gets turned on it's head. The police arrive to find the aggrieved chauffeur and Gondo assuming that no one would ever expect a ransom of 30 million yen on a chauffeur’s salary. Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) has kind of a cool Desi Arnaz thing going and takes charge. One can't help but see the humor in how the police and Gondo proceed as if the chauffeur doesn't exist.

We get to hear the kidnapper admit his mistake and then taunt Gondo. Again, this is just people in a room, but Kurosawa injects convincing energy as the phone rings, to keep us engaged. I know nothing of staging or blocking or composition but the meticulous care in which the characters are arranged is film school all by itself. Gondo and his assistant are in parallel, facing away from the kidnapper's voice on the tape recorder and all the other actors form a visual V directing our eyes back to the recorder. All the scenes in this room are filled with this level of care and detail.

It will take several scenes of Gondo trapped in this room with his pleading wife, then his pleading chauffeur, herding him like an animal against the curtains and symbolically closed windows, to find his inner decency and agree to pay.

Here he sits in darkness pondering his financial ruin as the police plan ways to trick the kidnapper. But finding a use for himself brings him out of darkness and returns him to a sense of purpose and resolve. For what it's worth, his wife is now in western dress, perhaps having exited her traditional role as a rich man's wife. At 5 foot 9 inches, Mifune was sometimes called “the Japanese John Wayne” and he moves with a unique kind of charismatic masculine self-assurance that supports that name.

And finally at 51 minutes, we get to leave the house.

The movie opens up to a series of scenes on the train to deliver the ransom. As Gondo throws briefcases of money out the train window (and then violently washes his face in the baptismal font/lavatory) Kurosawa provides us with scenes that movie lovers everywhere just bask in; he uses a hand held camera to follow the police through the train as they themselves use hand held 8mm to try to capture an image of the kidnapper and his accomplices. The energy and art is so enthralling that I could watch this a hundred times. YouTube and Toho force me to chop like hell.

The kidnapper is brought into focus slowly, first as a reflection in a polluted pond, then as a sweaty-shirted back walking down an alley, and then we get our first look at the kidnapper's face at EXACTLY 60 minutes (Did I mention meticulous? I mean, come on, Kurosawa is just showing off here). The kidnapper's motives are never clearly presented in a way that I understood at least, but at the heart of them is his life in the sweltering inferno of the port city and his always having to look up to see Gondo's house on the cool windswept hill. This slowly drives him crazy.
With cool confidence Kurosawa moves us back inside to a police briefing scene that lasts – I'm not kidding – 20 minutes. Teams of detectives stand up, present their findings, voice-over some flashbacks and then sit down to listen to the next team. Amazingly, it holds my attention. The entire room has two little electric fans.

Kurosawa had a thing for sweat. His early urban hero stories Drunken Angel and Stray Dog are the sweatiest, handkerchief-wringing-est, brow-and-bosom-wiping-est movies ever made. Stray Dog even runs opening credits over a long shot of a panting dog.

I digress.

So now we're in full-on police procedural. There is too much detail to present but it all briskly advances the story and shows the smarts of the kidnapper and the doggedness of the police in their pursuit. Probably by the script's design, Gondo temporarily fades into the background. He is now just another debt-ridden man waiting for the creditors to seize his hard-won property while he mows his own grass in a sweaty shirt.

Soon enough the movie will morph again into a noir as the kidnapper finds that his heroin addicted accomplices are liabilities and must be disposed of by faking their overdose. Kurosawa takes his telephoto-ish lenses into the bars of Yokohama and films seas of locals, Americans, sailors, undercover cops, etc. and places the kidnapper – in reflector shades – first as a Dionysian overseer of revelry (in a later scene his face will pop up out of a bunch of flowers) and then takes him down into the crowd to meet his dealer (a hard lookin' woman). Whether in a samurai sword and sandal epic or in a police procedural, with his usual expertise Kurosawa shows us exactly where to look to follow the action – even something as minor as how to pass money and drugs between dealer and customer. No dialog needed.

Your reviewer had to chop this a bunch to fit into the YouTube/Toho experience. I feel like I took a red pencil to Macbeth or The Bible or something.

The kidnapper (and his undercover tail) has to go to “Dope Alley”, a hellish underworld of drug addicts. Kurosawa's visual tsk-tsking is obvious, but we're almost done. Note the addition of an individual breathing noise to the soundtrack. I would love to know what inspired that. I know there are no accidents in Kurosawa movies. Everything is there for a reason. Note the glow in the sunglasses as the kidnapper selects a victim and how he repeats his “twist” dance move when putting out his cigarette. I don't think Kurosawa liked drugs and dancing very much.

I will leave the rest to you. It includes a long finale in which the kidnapper's face is reflected in a ghostly fashion on glass and superimposed next to his conversation partner so that we get to observe speaker and listener at the same time, even as they themselves are separated.  As the kidnapper, Tsutomu Yamazaki gets to display his considerable acting chops as he reveals his character's madness and barely hidden stark terror. In my experience, there is no crime-noir finale like it.

The slightly odd American trailer is below.

Yamazaki is still a star and is fondly known in the west for the goofy ramen comedy “Tampopo” and as the elderly undertaker in “Departures”. Tatsuya Nakadai played the lead in Kurosawa's “Ran” in 1985, and is still acting.

Kurosawa and Mifune had a falling out after “Red Beard” in 1965 and never worked together again. Mifune remained world-famous and scowled his way through guest parts in western movies such as “Gran Prix” and “Shogun” and died in 1997. Kurosawa was eventually hired to direct the Japanese scenes in Tora! Tora! Tora!, but was fired soon after. He even tried to kill himself in the 70s but went on to make 20 more years worth of at least interesting and usually enthralling movies. He died in 1998.

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