High and Low

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Movie: High and Low

Where You Can Stream It: The Criterion Channel

The Pitch: After making two back-to-back samurai classics, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, director Akira Kurosawa switched into contemporary mode to make High and Low (literal translation: Heaven and Hell), an urban thriller centering on an executive who faces a moral choice. On the cusp of orchestrating a shrewd and righteous corporate takeover, the executive’s chauffeur’s son is kidnapped and ransomed for 30 million yen. Should the exec pay the money – everything he’s saved and has spent his entire life working for – or refuse the kidnapper and go through with his takeover?

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Kurosawa’s movie is largely about income inequality, and that subject is so evergreen that the movie still feels incredibly vital even though it first premiered in 1963. (In fact, it would work wonderfully as a double feature with Bong Joon-ho’s recent Best Picture winner Parasite, which is now streaming on Hulu.) In addition to its explorations of wealth and poverty and the delicious moral quandaries it puts its characters through, High and Low is also a propulsive detective procedural which devotes a significant portion of its runtime to seeing characters use their wits to track the kidnapper. Considering how ingrained procedural tropes have become in popular culture, this film feels incredibly modern when viewed for the first time.

This is another of Kurosawa’s collaborations with the incredible Toshiro Mifune, and High and Low gives the performer all sorts of conflicted shades to play as he struggles with how to respond to the kidnapper’s demands. The movie wisely puts us on his character’s side early, showing how he actually cares about the customers as opposed to the boardroom bandits who are trying to force him out of the company. The first hour of the film is a tense morality play that takes place in one room, the “high” of the executive’s home on a hill overlooking the city, and the second half expands the scope to include the “low” perspective, with the kidnapper looking up at Mifune’s mansion and interpreting its very existence as a cruel taunt to those in poverty.

There are video essays aplenty which hold up Steven Spielberg as a modern master of blocking, and his talent is undeniable. But watching High and Low is like seeing the original document for the first time underneath Spielberg’s tracing paper. That may sound like a diss, but I swear it isn’t: after catching some of Raiders of the Lost Ark for the millionth time on Sunday night and being impressed all over again at the way Spielberg positions his characters in the frame, the similarities between certain shots in High and Low and Raiders just stuck out to me and seem like either purposeful or subconscious homage.

High and Low 1

Raiders blocking

Meanwhile, the back half of High and Low is one of the most superlative examples of procedural crime cinema that I’ve ever come across. Mifune’s character settles into the background as the lead investigator, played by Tatsuya Nakadai, becomes the focal point of the narrative and organizes a detailed, step-by-step analysis of the available evidence, which eventually informs a mission to catch the kidnapper. If you like watching movies where people are good at their jobs, this section of the film will scratch that itch for you.

I can’t think of many movies off the top of my head that execute a blend of moralism and thrills as successfully as High and Low. And thanks to the Criterion Channel, it’s only a click away.

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