Features and Columns · Movies

Criterion Files #24: High and Low

By  · Published on November 10th, 2010

As discussed in last week’s entry in the canon of the Criterion Files with Carol Reed’s The Third Man for our themed month dubbed “Noirvember,” the delineation of what is considered film noir is as gray as the pictures that encompass the genre (if genre is what it’s believed to be). It’s many things yet nothing distinctive.

In many cases, the aesthetics of low-angles and dark photography dominating the image mark a common visual signature that’s distinguishable, but not always definitively ‘noir’ and not always present in film-noir. Yet, somehow, we kind of know it when we see it.

In other instances, visual style takes the backseat of the police car in a picture with literary elements of crime, corruption, betrayal and other sinful activity found quite often in the films considered undoubtedly ‘noir,’ yet their presence does not define their categorical placement amongst films like The Third Man. Yet, somehow, we sort of just know it when we feel it.

Taken in its literal context the word ‘noir’ simply means dark. Dark what? Dark anything, really, and that’s part of what makes the genre so non-distinct and occasionally contradictory. A dark film is not necessarily noir, but noir films are in one way or another dark and some in ways that non-noir films can be.

Therefore, the only definitive fact about film-noir is that it’s an abstract concept thanks to films like Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963), loosely adapted from Ed McBain’s crime novel “King’s Ransom,” and is in many ways the antithesis to what would be considered dark for nearly eighty-percent of its running time. Yet, when you see it, you feel it, and its inclusion in consideration for what is noir further expands what the genre can be, or doesn’t have to be.

Reversal of Theme

Characteristically, film-noir pictures, on the whole, contain at least one of the previously listed literary or visual elements or have some other prominent piece that emits an aura of something slightly evil, and one of those common tropes being the theme of corruption of either the soul or an ideal.

Most often, corruption is bestowed upon a character with strong morals or ethical integrity and is enticed by some event or proposal that causes them to go against their better judgment. They are connived into not being themselves and coming out in a worse state on the other side.

Corruption is an important component to High and Low, but in its opposite form of construction of morals to more favorable results for the one being constructed upon.

Toshiro Mifune is a well-to-do businessman on the board of executives at a prominent shoe manufacturer known as National Shoes. In the film’s first scene we meet him and a handful of other major stock holders having a discussion about the company’s future line and their approach to turning a profit. It becomes evident that Kingo Gondo (Mifune) has a deeper appreciation for the company’s product and places more value on what they make versus how much is made from what they make; largely due to his starting with the company at the bottom and working his way to an executive position over a long duration of commitment and hard work.

The other executives threaten to remove Gondo from his place on the board if he doesn’t conform and Gondo sends them off in anger. Unbeknownst to them Gondo has been working to purchase a larger share of the company to solidify his place on the board and be the primary voice of direction. His plan works beautifully until he receives a telephone call not long after his meeting saying that his son is being held for ransom and the man wants 30 million yen, which will wipe out not only Gondo’s chances to purchase the company he’s dedicated his life to, but will also undoubtedly send him directly back into poverty – only this time his wife and son will be coming down with him.

For the life of his son the decision was an immediate no-brainer; he’ll happily pay the money. The only problem is that it’s not his son that’s been kidnapped as intended – it’s the son of his chauffeur. However, Gondo is still being held responsible by the kidnapper to pay the ransom.

When it’s your own child there are no limits to what you’re willing to do. When it isn’t your child, there are no limits to what excuses you’ll make.

Gondo has to be convinced on multiple fronts before he finally decides he’ll pay the money to recover the young boy of his desperate driver, but when he does and chooses to put his faith in the police to track down the kidnapper his public image is greatly affected positively. The working class populace sees him as heroic, the police make his case their top priority, his chauffeur feels infinitely indebted, and his opposition at the company become tainted and boycotted with every act of wrongdoing they put toward him.

For what may be one of the few times you may ever see it in film-noir the main character is persuaded into making the right decision (by the standards of a child’s life is worth more than your wealth) and what follows is deserved esteem from the community as if he was George Bailey. Kurosawa made it no secret that he was largely influenced by Western cinema, but It’s A Wonderful Life done as film-noir isn’t something many filmmakers could even understand how that *could* make sense.

That’s like setting The Hidden Fortress in a galaxy far, far away.

Heaven to Hell in a Handbag

The driving motivation for the events of the film revolves around class warfare. Gondo is a target not due to any particular personal grudges, but simply because he is rich and his house is easily visible from its hilltop setting to all of those less fortunate in the neighborhood below. It’s symbolic of his social status and a proud reflection of his success – completely warranted considering he began his journey amongst the likes of those in the neighborhoods below.

The kidnapper isn’t motivated by personal monetary gain to attain what Gondo has. He’d much rather send Gondo crumbling back down to the abysses and absence of luxury – forced to deal with sweltering heat and painful cold like everyone else.

It’s a desperate act of jealousy that kick-starts an investigation that as the detectives inch closer to the identity of the kidnapper the film’s tone begins to creep closer and closer to the darkside. This transition is matched by the dominant setting for the capture taking place at night (almost every scene preceding the final act takes place in either a brightly lit room, or during the day) in the bleakest of representations of a community of zombified heroin addicts. In the film’s final moment, a confrontation between Gondo and his foe, we learn of their individual character – a telling scene in which we witness how some are able to rise, while others remain fallen.

Punch your ticket to the arthouse and read more Criterion Files

Related Topics: ,